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A new project is aimed at giving children a greater voice in court proceedings – and the program’s leaders and B.C.’s children’s representative say the province has lagged behind other jurisdictions in this area.

The Society for Children and Youth of BC has launched a project that provides independent legal assistance for young people who are involved in family-law and child-protection cases.

“In our opinion, B.C. was and is well behind the rest of the country when it comes to children and youth having that access to legal representation,” Stephanie Howell, the society’s executive director, said in an interview.

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The program launched in late October and its funding is assured until early 2020. It has an annual budget of approximately $460,000. The money primarily comes from the Law Foundation of BC and the Law Foundation of Ontario.

Bernard Richard, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said in an interview that he is excited to see the program unfold.

“We see in our office every day cases where independent legal advice for children could be critical,” he said.

Mr. Richard recalled a recent case in which a teenager did not have a say in a custody battle between his parents, but had wanted to.

“I think in very strongly disputed cases, where there is evidence of domestic violence, where the interests of children are often at the heart of the matter, having their voices heard directly through independent legal counsel can be critical,” he said.

In 2013, the representative’s office provided a $20,000 research grant to the Law Foundation of BC to look at the establishment of a children’s legal clinic. That research grant is contributing to the project.

B.C.’s Ministry of Attorney General said in a statement that it supports the society’s work and looks forward to hearing more about its progress.

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In Ontario, the Office of the Children’s Lawyer represents young people in cases involving custody and child protection. Whereas B.C.’s program is relatively small, Ontario’s office has an annual budget of approximately $40-million.

Katherine Kavassalis, legal director, personal rights, with the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, in an interview said the cases it takes on have tremendous effects for children.

“In the custody access cases, their lives are going to change. They’re not going to be living with both parents at the same time, they may be moving schools, they may be moving cities. And for me, it’s quite disrespectful to make changes to people’s lives without getting input from them,” she said.

Ms. Kavassalis said allowing parents to speak for their children, in a custody case, for instance, might not always be adequate.

“In custody access disputes, you tend to have the two parents warring over who should be raising the children. They’re not objective,” she said.

Suzette Narbonne, a lawyer with the B.C. society, said the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child informs much of the work the society does.

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She said Article 12 of the convention stipulates that a child should have the opportunity to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceeding that affects the child, either directly or through a representative.

She noted Canada is a signatory to the convention.

“We see children’s lives intersecting with the justice system in so many different ways, whether they’re a victim of crime, or their parents are separating, or they have been apprehended and placed into the custody of a child protection agency,” she said.

“In all of those circumstances, they weren’t getting any legal representation.”

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