Report: We need more child-friendly courts
Each year thousands of children take part in court cases in Estonia and the EU, the recent "Child-friendly Justice – Perspectives and Experiences of Professionals" report found.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) investigated whether children's rights are respected in these proceedings.
The results, based on interviews with a total of 570 professionals and children in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom, show that there is still a long way to go to make justice more child-friendly across the EU. It appears that although all EU countries have committed themselves to ensuring that children’s best interests are the primary consideration in any action that affects them, their rights to be heard, informed, protected and not discriminated against are not always fulfilled in practice.
The study also shows that whereas pre-trial proceedings are usually rather child-friendly, the court hearings prove more traumatizing to the little ones. The study also reveals how Estonia lacks sufficient provisions for post-trial support and counselling services.
The results indicate that in most countries, children are being listened to more during criminal rather than civic proceedings, since the former require collection of evidence.
Astrid Podsiadlowski, FRA's head of Sector Rights of the Child, told ERR that the decision to be heard in civil proceedings very much depends on the assessment of the individual professional involved if the child is younger than the age required to be heard. "There are rarely requirements to ensure that children are heard in the most favorable settings and under the most suitable conditions," she added, citing the UK and Germany as examples of more child-friendly practices.
According to Marianne Meioru, who coordinated the study in Estonia, the law currently obliges courts to hear out children caught in civic disputes. However, it does determine by whom, how and how many times this must be done. So the requirement is implemented on the discretion of individual judges.
"This is a weakness, rather than a strength – judges lack necessary preparation that would go beyond one or two short courses." Meioru said, adding that psychologists and social workers are more equipped to decide whether a child is mature enough to give evidence and attend court.
Hence, the respondents from Estonia said that they need more practical advice on how to handle cases that involve children and specialization among both judges and lawyers could also be beneficial.
FRA's too recommends countries establish specialized courts for children. Where these already exist, they are said to better ensure that procedural safeguards are in place (such as the use of video-recordings and child-friendly rooms) and that appropriate hearing techniques are employed, Podsiadlowski explained. "They also reduce the length of proceedings, especially if a child is involved in more than one case, and the repetition of hearings due to the multidisciplinary cooperation they support and the specific training of professionals working in those courts."