Law: In the name of the child

New legislation will protect the young.
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The Independent Culture
JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, knows all about how children can get into trouble with the law. It was just before Christmas in 1997 when he accompanied his son William to Kennington police station after he had been caught handing over cannabis to an undercover reporter.

On Thursday he will be joined by other parents, including Hillary Clinton, Cherie Booth and Esther Rantzen, when all three will be headlining an international conference organised by Childline and aimed at issues involving children and the law. Mr Straw, who will give the keynote speech, is not expected to mention the cannabis incident directly, although it's thought he may well be drawing on the experience. The kind of issues to be tackled by the conference include "tug of love" children in divorce cases, the problems of interviewing young children and new technology to help children give evidence in court.

The last fortnight has witnessed the launch of a number of other child- law initiatives and child-support groups. Cherie Booth, who will be specifically talking about child abuse and the criminal law at the Childline conference, is also one of eight QC patrons of the newly established Bar committee on the rights of the child. The committee's chairman, Jeremy Rosenblatt, says it aims to raise concerns about children who need protection under the new Human Rights Act 1998, which is due to come into force next year.

"Concerns range from lesser breaches of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to far greater ones, of children being sold into slavery, forced into employment, taken as prostitutes or brides, and forced to take up arms as soldiers," says Mr Rosenblatt.

The Government is also acting on child law, introducing measures in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill which change the way children are dealt with under the criminal justice system. Today, experts on human rights and juvenile justice will discuss the implications of the proposed changes.

A Government-backed advice service launched last week by the Solicitors' Family Law Association will bring information on the law to children who are in care. Details of the service, called Carelaw, are being made available to schools and social service departments. It is designed for children in care who have access to a computer. The Internet website, supported by the Department of Health, children's charities and three High Court judges, tackles a number of controversial issues, including informing children that their social workers are not allowed to wake them up early or punish them by forcing them to wear special clothes.

Carelaw also provides information on contraception and abortion. In answer to the question "Can I go on the pill?", the advice service says that a doctor can arrange contraception for a child under 16 without informing parents or social workers. The website also tells children what punishments the careworkers are, and are not, allowed to impose. Children who have broken the care home's rules cannot be punished by being deprived of sleep or woken up early. Nor can they be forced to wear "special clothes". However, careworkers may withhold treats and impose television bans.

Carelaw, which has been designed with the help of a group of children who are or have been in care, also tells children that if they are not happy with their treatment in care they can consult a solicitor. Rosemary Carter, chairman of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, says: "Providing accurate and independent information to young people about their rights in care is a good way of ensuring that the highest standards of local authority care are maintained." Carelaw claims: "Once court proceedings are over, a young person in care can find it very difficult to obtain basic information about their rights."

Lawyer Rosaleen Henry, one of the leading forces behind Carelaw, admits: "We are covering a range of issues, some of which are controversial. But we have not received any objections so far." Charities like Childline have shown that children need support from the law as well as protection from its workings. Carelaw is an example of how direction access can give children more control over decisions made in the name of the law.