It has long been considered somewhat controversial for judges to meet with children who are a part of divorce or custody cases, due to the fear of distressing the children. Whether or not meeting with the children to determine the outcome of the case is considered permissible, or necessary, will depend on the jurisdiction in which the case is conducted, because laws regarding these topics vary from state to state, and country to country.
In recent years, however, these types of judicial meetings, with children who are involved in divorce and custody cases, have become more common, and may continue to do so. This is because recent research show that it can actually be beneficial to the children, and to an overall positive outcome of the divorce/custody case for everyone involved.
A jurisdiction in which the meeting of judges with children in divorce/custody is accepted will still need to deal with the details of how these meetings should occur. Many jurisdictions that allow these types of meetings do, therefore, publish guidelines which judges can use in determining whether a meeting with a child involved in a case should occur. The guidelines also determine how the meeting should be conducted.
Here are some examples of potential guidelines for a judge meeting with a child in a divorce and/or custody case:
- Before the meeting occurs, the child will be asked whether they want to meet with the judge;
- The judge will determine whether meeting with the child is necessary and appropriate;
- Someone will be assigned to attend the meeting with the child;
- The judge will explain that they can’t keep the child’s secrets, and will have to share what the child tells them with their parents and with other people involved in the case;
- The judge will explain that the outcome of the case is not the child’s responsibility, but the judge’s, and that the judge has to make the best decisions they can with all the information they learn about the case;
- The judge will explain the way in which the judge’s decision on the case will be communicated to the child; and/or
- The judge will make it know that the child’s parents are required have the opportunity to respond to what was said in the judge’s meeting with the child.
When a child meets with the judge in a divorce or custody case, it provides them the opportunity to share their own point of view. The meetings are meant to allow the child to be candid in their feelings about the case, and about their parents, without feeling the stress of having their parents present.
But to go further and ensure that the child is able to be in a safe environment, where they are not speaking to a larger audience but just one or two people in a more intimate setting, that would ensure that the child speaks honestly and provides relevant information.
In the absence of a meeting with the child, a judge can form their opinion on a case based only on testimony or reports from those who know (or have met with) the child such as the child’s parents, and lawyers and mental health counselors.
Reasonably enough, some judges feel that hearing from the child themselves can paint a better picture of the reality of their family and home life. Without meeting with the child, and relying only on evidence from others, the child’s opinion may not be known. The child may prefer a particular parent have custody, for instance.
The idea behind judicial meetings with children involved in divorce/custody cases is that the judge can more fully form a picture of what the home life is like for the family involved in the case, and can then render a decision which is best for all parties, particularly the child. Judges follow a “best interests” standard in these types of cases, in which the best interests of a child are used to make decisions.
It’s clear that children and entire families can benefit by the child meeting with the judge in divorce/custody proceedings, because it gives the child the opportunity to speak without being pressured by other parties. Some people oppose these meetings because they think a judge does not have the necessary training to work children and does not know how to evaluate abuse victims, or because a child’s preference for one parent over the other will lead them to be dishonest in order to get what they want. Those opposed to judicial meetings have also noted that the meetings violate due process, because they could cause the judge to be less objective when rendering a decision.
There is often nothing to worry about if your child will be attending a judicial meeting. The child will have a person accompanying them and making sure that the process isn’t emotionally traumatic for the child. If you have concerns, then speak to your family lawyer to find out what to do next.