Belfast's Children's Law Centre reflects focus on rights of young

 

In addition to upholding rights, the centre strives to counter media demonisation of young

CHILDREN’S MENTAL health, the assessment of children with special needs, and children in policing policy in a society emerging from conflict are all issues dealt with by the Children’s Law Centre in Belfast.

It was set up in September 1997, following criticism from the UN’s reporting body of the UK’s record in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. After a year assessing the need for such a body, it was established with barrister Paddy Kelly as its director.

“We saw there was a need for child-specific and child-accessible advice,” she told The Irish Times. “There was also a need for advocacy in relation to the benefits of the peace process with regard to children.”

A model was set up to deal with these two areas, which would be open to parents, guardians, teachers and others involved with young people.

While the centre is open to children and young people, normally they come accompanied by an adult, she said.

As reported in yesterday’s Irish Times, a child law clinic offering research and expertise to lawyers is being established in the law department of University College Cork. The clinic could become linked to a children’s law centre along the lines of that operating in Belfast.

The Belfast centre has a free-phone run by two people with law degrees, a barrister focusing on special educational needs, a solicitor who specialises in mental health and another who specialises in educational issues, and a part-time solicitor who is a specialist in discrimination law. Its funding is mainly from philanthropic and charitable organisations, with some government funding.

The centre does not represent children in the youth courts or in the family courts, she said, but it does take legal cases.

“We engage in strategic litigation,” Ms Kelly said.

“Mainly we take judicial reviews, either because of the number of children involved or because of the nature of abuse of children’s rights. We do it to clarify the law and ensure it’s children’s rights compliant.”

So how do children obtain information about their rights? “After the success of Childline we set up a free-phone for legal advice and issues can be raised. We monitor those and see what the issues are.

“We are very clear – children are rights-holders. The children are our clients. Often they come in with their parents or guardians, but we take instructions from the young person.”

One of the issues pursued by the centre is the lack of mental health services for young people. “We engage with the duty-bearer to access to those needs.”

Paddy Kelly is passionate about how children and young people are treated and perceived.

“The single biggest issue for young people is their demonisation by the media. If the same things were said about woman or a minority group, there would be uproar.”