Girl's separation case highlights new child rights

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The Independent Online
INCREASING numbers of children will attempt to take legal action under the Children Act as they learn that they have new powers to do so, lawyers said yesterday.

Their comments came as it emerged that a 14-year-old girl from Surrey had obtained a court order allowing her to move out of her home and stay with her boyfriend's family. It was unclear last night whether this was the first case of its kind in Britain.

The Children's Legal Centre, in London, said it had been contacted by about 10 young people seeking advice on how to exercise their rights since the new Act came into force a year ago.

Most wanted to contest a court order that they should live with one of their parents, but some were in a similar situation to the 14-year-old girl.

The centre told the children that it was possible for them to make applications on their own behalf under the new Act. It does not, however, know whether any of them did so.

In the Surrey case, the girl initiated proceedings to secure judicial backing for her decision to move away from her family. She obtained a 'prohibited steps' order, temporarily preventing her parents from taking her back, and will seek a 'residence order' next month which would allow her to live in her new home indefinitely.

Her parents are understood to be divorced, but her father, with whom she has a bad relationship, had recently been playing a more active role in family life.

She went to stay with her boyfriend's parents after learning that her father might move back home. Last night, a solicitor acting for the girl's mother said: 'In a nutshell, it's a case of a 14-year-old girl who would rather be with her boyfriend, who is 18, than at home with her family.'

Yesterday, Stuart Spencer, a partner at the Guildford firm, Hart Brown, which is acting for the girl, said it was misleading to say that she had 'divorced' her family. Under the Children Act, parents cannot lose their responsibility for a child, he said, adding: 'It is just that the court considers that in the circumstances of the case, it is correct for the girl to live elsewhere.' Separation was a more appropriate term for the legal position.

He was supported by Maureen O'Hara, of the Children's Legal Centre, who said there were 'crucial' differences between the Surrey case and a recent case in Florida, where 12-year-old Gregory Kingsley 'divorced' his parents. 'Here, parental responsibility cannot be revoked,' she said.

Under the new Act, a child can instruct solicitors, obtain legal aid and take action. However, before an application can be made, a judge must rule that the child is sufficiently old and mature to understand the consequences.

Ms O'Hara said: 'It's important that young people have the ability to make some applications on their own behalf.'

She said that as children realised their new rights under the Act, they would make increasing numbers of applications. 'But it's likely to grow slowly and gradually.'