Judges meeting with children as a part of divorce or custody cases continues to be fairly controversial. While in some jurisdictions these meetings have become an essential part in post-separation decision-making, other jurisdictions consider them inappropriate.
However, judicial meetings with children in divorce and custody cases may continue to become more popular as recent studies seem to indicate such meetings may have a positive impact on the child and on the outcome of the case.
What are the Guidelines for Judicial Meetings with Children?
Even in jurisdictions where judicial meetings with children in family law cases is common, there are often still concerns over how the meeting should take place. As a result, many jurisdictions provide guidelines for judges in deciding whether a meeting with the children should occur and how it should be conducted (e.g. Family Justice Council Guidelines). Some potential guidelines for judicial meetings with children include:
- Explain that a judge cannot keep secrets, and anything communicated to the judge will usually be shared with both parents;
- Explain that the decisions in the case are the responsibility of the judge, who will have to weigh a number of factors, and that the outcome is never the responsibility of the child;
- Explain how the judge’s decision will be communicated to the child; and/or
- The parents must have the opportunity to respond to the content of the meeting.
How Can a Child Benefit by Meeting with the Judge?
By meeting personally with the judge in a family law case, a child can provide honest responses without any pressure exerted by the presence of their parents. This can allow the judge to receive an unadulterated view of the child’s home life.
Why Do Some Judges Favor Meetings with the Child?
Usually, judges only hear about the child’s wishes from the parents, lawyers, or family counselors who prepare written reports about their findings upon interviewing the child. Thus, the judge may make decisions about the child’s future based on consultations with these parties without ever meeting privately with the child, even though family court matters are intended to be handled with the "best interests of the child" in mind.
Some judges believe that an opportunity to hear firsthand the thoughts of the child without the influence of third parties is essential to truly evaluating a child’s best interest. This can help the judge make an informed decision with various custody arrangements concerning the child. Judge’s also favor allowing children to have an opportunity to be heard in decisions regarding their custody placement.
Why are Some Against Judicial Meetings with the Child?
Despite the apparent benefits to the child from judicial meetings, there are some who think that judges lack the training and experience in dealing with children. Others believe that the child may not be completely honest with the judge about family matters out of loyalty to one or both parents.
Still others think that since a judge is not trained in mental health or counseling, the judge is ill-equipped to determine whether the child has experienced abuse or alienation. It has also been stated that judicial meetings with children violate due process, particularly because such interviews could cause the judge to be less objective when making a decision.