It is important to protect children from conflict when parents separate, and especially important to shield them from involvement in a court proceeding. However, sometimes it is important in both custody and access and child protection cases for the court to either hear the views and preferences of children, or to receive a report from a third party expert regarding the family.
When it would assist the court to have this sort of perspective on the children, the court has the option of requesting the involvement of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (the OCL). The OCL is a government department which represents children under the age of 18 in court proceedings. The services that they provide are described on their website.
For older children who are capable of giving instructions to counsel, the OCL will typically appoint a lawyer who has been specifically trained in representing children. The lawyer’s job is to communicate the children’s views and preferences to the court, and they may participate in the court proceeding in the same way as the parents. At our firm, Kate Bennett is a member of the Personal Rights panel for the OCL, which represents children in both custody and access and child protection cases.
The OCL also has the option of conducting a clinical investigation. Clinical investigators are social workers who will interview children and their parents, conduct observation visits, review records related to the children, and contact the professionals who are associated with the children. This is similar to the custody and access assessment process that my colleague Hillary Houston blogged about recently. After the investigation is complete, the investigator will meet with all of the parties to the court case to present their conclusions and attempt to use alternative dispute resolution to resolve the dispute. If the parties do not agree to a resolution at the meeting with the investigator, the clinical investigator will prepare a report on the family, which is filed with the court. Both parents can cross-examine the clinical investigator at trial.
In some cases, the OCL will appoint a lawyer to represent the children, with a ‘clinical assist’ from an investigator. In those cases, the lawyer and the social worker will work together.
The Office of the Children’s Lawyer can provide important information from the child’s perspective in a court case. Unlike the custody and access assessment process, the OCL is only available when the matter has been brought to court. If you think that this sort of assistance would be valuable in your case, you should talk to your lawyer about seeking a court order requesting the OCL’s involvement.