Learning outcomes for this module

At the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Understand what a children’s rights based approach to giving legal information and advice to child clients involves and why it is important.
  • Have had the opportunity to reflect critically on the ways in which you communicate with your clients through various media.
  • Identified strategies for adopting a more children’s rights-based approach to your correspondence with child clients.
 
 
 
Materials needed for this module

As this module focuses on the ways in which you present information to your child clients in written form, it would really be helpful to have the following items to hand:

1. A typical client care letter that your firm would send to child clients, or your terms of business if you are a barrister who undertakes direct access work.

2. A typical letter of correspondence from your existing case work, updating your child client of progress on their case.
Part 1

Why it is so important to provide children with "accessible" information

This module considers the way in which lawyers present information and advice to their child clients. Much information and advice is provided during face-to-face meetings, and so the principles and processes covered in Module 1 apply. In this second module, we focus in particular on how lawyers communicate with children between those meetings since a lot of the most important information is provided to children remotely, via letters, phone calls and through other media.  

 

TALE VIDEO 9

 

"Without access to reliable, relevant information, children cannot meaningfully engage in any decision-making process."
Sarah Woodhouse

Relevant Provisions of The Child Friendly Justice Guidelines
Guideline 1
From their first involvement with the justice system or other competent authorities (such as the police, immigration, educational, social or health care services) and throughout that process, children and their parents should be promptly and adequately informed of inter alia their rights, the procedure involved, the support available to them, the possible consequences of proceedings...

Guideline 2
The information and advice should be provided to children in a manner adapted to their age and maturity, in a language which they can understand and which is gender and culture sensitive.

Guideline 3
As a rule, both the child and parents or legal representatives should directly receive the information. Provision of the information to the parents should not be an alternative to communicating the information to the child.

Guideline 4
Child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information should be made available and widely distributed, and special information services for children such as specialised websites and helplines established.

Despite unequivocal acknowledgement that the availability and accessibility of information is the crucial starting point in any children’s rights based approach to the justice process, child clients’ experiences of receiving such information are extremely variable. Some have told us that they received very limited information from their lawyers; many say that the information they received was difficult to understand or not really relevant or useful to them. The children in these clips talk about the quality and accessibility of the information they received when they were going through justice proceedings. 

 

TALE VIDEO 10

 

"Giving those constant updates and reassuring the client what is happening is really key because the more you keep them updated, the more they feel comfortable with you."
Caitlin

Part 2

 Ensuring the child receives the ‘right’ information

 

TALE VIDEO 11

 

"The task (and challenge) for practitioners, is to provide different types of information so that children and young people have the reassurance they need to be able to insist that their rights are respected in practice." 
Helen Stalford

In summary, respecting children’s right to information involves much more than conveying procedural facts to the child; practitioners have to contextualise that information, present the child with some genuine choices, define what support is available to enable the child to exercise those choices, calibrate the child’s expectations in the light of other factors that influence decisions about him or her, and present realistic and clear projections as to what outcomes might arise from different courses of action.  Having identified what information children need in justice proceedings and why, the rest of this module focuses on how practitioners can best convey that information. 

Part 3

Informing the child of the formal terms of your relationship

On taking on any case, lawyers have a professional and legal duty to inform all clients, including children, of the terms of their relationship or ‘contract’. This involves the lawyer confirming in writing the cost and nature of the legal representation they have undertaken to provide, the instructions they have received from the client, any advice the lawyer can provide, and any action that needs to be taken as the case progresses. Such information is initially contained in a client care letter. Client care letters are not renowned for being child friendly!; they generally adhere to a standard format, are rather formal in tone and necessarily contain some technical legal content to comply with your professional requirements. 

At a most basic level, a children’s rights-based approach requires that you correspond directly with the child, even if this is supported by a letter to the relevant adults responsible for their care. The majority of the children we have spoken to did not receive any letters directly from their lawyers; the practitioners wrote to their parents or guardian instead. Others did not really engage with the written information they received from their lawyer because it was written in language that they could not fully understand. This compounded their sense of confusion and isolation during the legal process. It can also create some problems for the lawyers as the following reflections highlight.

 

TALE VIDEO 12

 

"It can be a challenging to try to provide young people with all the information they are entitled to but at the same time to make that information ‘child friendly.’ It needs to have the actual law in there, but the law is not child friendly." 
Rosalind Compton

 

Reflective Exercise

Consider a sample client care letter you or one of your colleagues have recently sent out to a client (ideally to a child client if you have access to such an example). Using the checklist of factors included in Guidelines 1, 2 and 3 of the Child Friendly Justice Guidelines (summarised in the table below), assess the extent to which your initial client care letter complies with the following: 









 

It is extremely challenging to present all of this practical and background rights-based detail, along with any contractual information required to meet your professional obligations, in a single, accessible letter.

In all likelihood, the child (much like any adult client) will simply not read even the most carefully crafted letter if it is too long and detailed.

You may want to consider instead the approach adopted by lawyers at the Coram Legal Centre: they produce a one-page table listing the letter’s main contents/themes along with a page reference to a more detailed summary, presented in a longer format that the child can refer to if they want to.

 
Moving forward in providing child friendly information

Develop a template for a child friendly client care or advice letter that can be adapted for casework involving individual child clients in your firm.

 
Part 4

Child friendly information methods and media: skilling-up rather than dumbing-down

One of the primary duties of a lawyer representing any client is not only to provide advice and information but also to ensure that this is understood by the client. Lawyers often fail to appreciate the degree of misunderstanding or confusion felt by young people involved in legal proceedings. When a child does not understand key aspects of their case it can significantly affect their experience of the legal process. It can also impact on your ability to handle their case effectively. Issues that commonly impede the child’s understanding include:

 
Relevant Provisions of The Child Friendly Justice Guidelines
Guideline 2
The information and advice should be provided to children in a manner adapted to their age and maturity, in a language which they can understand and which is gender and culture sensitive.
  • The child’s emotional state, particularly if they are distressed
  • The complexity of the problem and the relevant legal framework
  • Unfamiliar legal terminology
  • Lack of access to relevant information. For example, some of the information you might need to represent the child properly may be controlled by the police, the Home Office, parents, social workers or other lawyers.
  • The pressure to manage client relationships 'professionally'
  • Lack of training or experience on how to assess children’s understanding

Some of these factors are outside of your control and require close collaboration with other welfare professionals with specialist experience. Other factors, however, can be addressed through some relatively modest changes to your approach.  

An essential way of achieving understanding is by using child friendly language. Even terms that you as a practitioner take for granted, such as ‘guardian’, ‘plea’, ‘social worker’, ‘age assessment’, ‘courts’, ‘Home Office’, ‘hearing’, ‘appeal’ may all be unfamiliar to a child who has never experienced the legal process before. 

This is easier said than done, though. You will have to have a good knowledge of the child’s understanding and knowledge through your face-to-face interactions to ensure that you adapt your written correspondence appropriately. But in using child friendly language, you need to be cautious not to oversimplify terms to the extent that any advice or information loses all meaning and that you are failing in your professional obligations to provide the client with all of the information he or she needs. This is a difficult balance to achieve as a practitioner, because written correspondence is not just important for informing the child of what is happening; it also provides an important record of progress for other justice professionals involved in the case.

Have a look at the following examples of child friendly glossaries of terms from lawstuff.org.uk and childlawadvice.org.uk

Listen to the following video clip which shows lawyers reflecting on some of the difficulties they have had communicating with child clients.

 
 

TALE VIDEO 13

 

"It is easy to forget that as a lawyer you are probably often using terms that do not make sense to adults, not to mention young people. But there is a dual danger in underestimating or overestimating the capacity of a child to understand what you are saying." 
Mital Raithatha & Solange Valdez

 

The practitioners in the following footage highlight some of the techniques they have developed to promote children's understanding during the legal process, both during face-to-face meetings, and in follow-up correspondence.

 
 

TALE VIDEO 14

 

"It is important to develop reliable techniques to check whether your client has really understood you. Simply asking a child client “do you understand?” is usually not good enough."
Rosalind Compton, Lucy Yeatman and Solange Valdez

 

Key points on checking your client's understanding

  1. When checking understanding avoid asking questions beginning with ‘D’ such as “Do you understand” as these elicit closed responses such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and clients will often respond ‘yes’ even if they don’t understand information. Use questions beginning with ‘W’ as these promote more open answers and require the client to explain their understanding (ex. “why do we need to go to court?”; “when is the date of the hearing?”)
     
  2. Listening to how your client re-states your advice can help you to learn how young people understand and talk about the concepts you deal with on a daily basis.  Ask the child to "explain back" something you have told them is an excellent way to check their understanding. Even when they tell you they have grasped what you told them, you may discover that you have not been as clear as you thought you had been. 
     
  3. In written correspondence and face-to-face meetings, use a child friendly legal glossary to help explain specific concepts or terms. You can add terms to this and adapt so that it is specific to your area of expertise. Ideally, you should consult with past or present child clients in testing where your glossary really is child friendly. 
 
Moving forward in ensuring understanding

Develop a one sheet glossary to include terminology, key personnel and key steps in the procedure relevant to your area of practice, explaining key terms that come up frequently in child friendly language.

Make a commitment to have this available in your offices (e.g. in reception) and enclose it with all initial advice letters.

 
Part 5

Maintaining good communication in between meetings

A final point relates to how lawyers can maintain effective communication in between meetings. There are three essential components in this regard:

  • Regular: The communication should be regular so that the child is kept informed of any updates (including lack of progress) on their case, and to ensure that you are continuing to build on your relationship of trust with him or her; 
  • Accessible: The communication should be in a form/media that the child can readily access, ideally of the child’s choosing. This may be text messaging, by phone, by email or by WhatsApp. All forms satisfy the regulatory requirements. If the child is at ease with and in control of the method of communication, they are much more likely to read and understand the information you are communicating.  
  • Direct: if the child is your client, all communication relating to their case should be directed at them in the first instance even if the child is not directly engaged in the preparation of the case (because of its complexity, other commitments, or a sheer lack of interest). Supporting adults can be provided with supplementary or duplicate information (of course, only with the consent of your client). 

These priorities are explained further by the following practitioners: 

 

TALE VIDEO 15

 

"In terms of how to communicate, it has got to be led by them. I always ask my clients what they prefer, understanding that there may be things that restrict them. There’s no need to force them to communicate in a way that we think is the best way." 
Rosalind Compton and Mital Raithatha

 

Useful references

  • The International Association of Youth and Family Judges and Magistrates (IAYFJM) Guidelines on Children in Contact with the Justice System. See in particular section 3.1 on information and advice which states: 'Information and advice should be provided on various issues, such as, amongst others, the rights of the child and ways to exercise and protect them; the court system; the proceedings (in court and out of court), including the place and role of the child, as well as the possible outcomes and consequences of the proceedings on him or her; the charges, if any, laid against the child; availability of services which can provide help and support; the availability of review of decisions.'

  • ‘Lawstuff’ developed by CORAM children’s legal centre explains key legal terms and processes in a range of legal contexts in child friendly language

  • Stalford, H., Cairns, L., and Marshall, J. ‘Achieving Child Friendly Justice through Child Friendly Methods: Let’s Start with the Right to Information’ (2017) Social Inclusion 2017, Volume 5, Issue 3, Pages 207–218

  • The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has produced a series of a series of videos in several languages explaining some of the key elements surrounding the topic of children and justice, including the right to information, the right to be heard, and the right to legal representation and protection

  • For another example of a glossary adapted to immigration and asylum proceedings that could be adapted to a child friendly version see – H. Crawley ‘Working with children and young people subject to immigration control: guidelines for best practice’ Second edition, 2012., published by ILPA at p.119.