The Kids are NOT Alright: Access to Justice for ChildrenHannah DeJong, CFCJ Student Researcher
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Access to justice for children is emerging as a distinct sub-topic under the larger umbrella of child and youth rights. Kids are dragged into the justice system by custody battles, sexual or other abuse, exploitation, foster care, educational rights violations, or offending. It is important to understand that children who enter the justice system through committing an offence are just as vulnerable as children who enter the justice system without offending — and both should be given equal access to justice and safeguarding of their rights.
What is access to justice for children? The UN is careful to distinguish this issue from the related issue of juvenile justice, which is primarily concerned with penalizing minor offenders differently than adults. Access to justice for children means that violations of rights in national and international standards such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child must be resolved in a just and timely manner . It also requires the “legal empowerment of all children”, where children have access to the information and services they need in order to claim their rights, through sources such as knowledgeable adults, legal services, child rights education, or counseling . Of course, the particular understanding and maturity levels of children must be taking into account when exercising their rights.
While access to justice for children remains an area not widely-researched , it is gaining steam in the human rights and global development communities. In the 2012 Declaration of the Meeting of the General Assembly on the Rule of Law, UN member states “recognized the importance of the rule of law for the protection of the rights of the child, including legal protection from discrimination, violence, abuse and exploitation, ensuring the best interests of the child in all actions, and recommitting to the full implementation of the rights of the child” . This spring, the UN Human Rights Council held their annual full-day children’s rights meeting. The theme: access to justice for children. The report  for this meeting, which came out in April 2014, identifies many recommendations for States to ensure children’s access to justice. A few of these include:
- Providing children with access to therapeutic services for neglect, violence, and abuse;
- Allowing children to initiate legal proceedings when their rights are violated;
- Ensuring decisions are explained to the child in a way and in a language the child understands
- Ensuring the child’s right to appeal is not more restricted than that of adults;
- Ensuring all children have access to legal and other appropriate assistance;
- Increasing public awareness of the rights of the child;
- Ensuring children’s informed consent to decisions in line with their evolving capacities;
One exciting outcome of this meeting was introducing a new treaty  that allows children to complain directly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about alleged violations of their rights. Regrettably, this treaty, while in force, has yet to be signed or ratified by Canada or the US. I was pleased to see the UN had included a child-friendly version of the announcement (also useful for adults to avoid confusion!).
In Canada, Toronto-based organization, Justice for Children and Youth, seeks to carry out UN recommendations to increase access to justice for children and defend children’s rights by providing legal representation for low-income children and youth. They are also working to make the guiding principles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child more widely followed and known to both kids and adults. Many of their projects involve participation from kids, like their PSA video, “Your Right to Speak”.
Meanwhile, down South, the Tennessee Bar Association recently hosted a video-submission contest for youth centered around the question “There ought to be a law…”. Some entries focused on ideas such as providing free Wi-Fi in grocery stores, or banning the controversial extraction practice of mountain-top removal, but the winner was 13-year-old Michael Hill, who enlisted his siblings as actors in his “Access to Justice” video. It’s good to know there’s at least one kid out there who knows a thing or two about access to justice (although this may stem from the fact that both his parents are lawyers). Like every other area of access to justice, access to justice for children can only be achieved with the full participation of children in creating reform.
Child Rights Connect Survey — Prezi presentation on a survey asking 310 children ages 11-17 from 24 countries about their perceptions of access to justice for children in the justice system. View the survey report here. Child Rights Connect has a special working relationship with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and is fully recognized to take part in United Nations deliberations.
Speak Up for Your Rights: OP3 CRC — A short guide for children, teens and child-led organizations about the new UN treaty that lets children speak up about child rights violations.
The “Juveniles Waiting for Justice” photo series from Open Society Foundations depicts the disorganization of records, long trial wait times, and scarcity of food and proper hygiene in the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Two reports by the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children (CCRC) and UNICEF show to what extent Canada has implemented the recommendations in the UN Conventionon the Rights of the Child.