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Campaigns for protection of child rights, family courts gather momentum

Adeniji Kazeem‎

An improved justice administration is incomplete without the protection of the rights of children and a functional family court that will adjudicate on related matters. It was on account of this that the Lagos State judiciary recently hosted a national conference for Family Court Judges and Magistrates in Nigeria with a focus on the need to protect the Child Rights Law in the country. Godwin Dunia reports.

The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Olufunmilayo Atilade said the reasons behind the conference, was to improve justice administration, welfare and development of the family.

She said: “The idea of a National Conference of Family Court Judges and Magistrates in Nigeria, which is first of its kind, was conceived with the intent to convene in a convivial atmosphere, judges and magistrates and all other stakeholders presiding over family and juvenile courts in the country.

“Our concern for this institution, especially at this critical period in our development, is informed by the need to further preserve and ensure the protection of its members, especially women, children and the vulnerable, through appropriate legal framework and incisive judicial process, especially at both the High court and Magistrates,” she said.

The Lagos CJ also lamented the rate of child abuse in spite of sustained advocacy and legislations.

“What is most saddening and pathetic is the increasing spate of child molestation, juvenile delinquency, pedophile, rape and domestic violence in our society, in spite of sustained advocacy and relevant legislations aimed at curtailing the occurrence of these and related crimes,” she stated.

Child Rights Law came to ensure the protection of child rights from the age of childhood until he or she becomes an adult. The Act to provide and protect the right of the Nigerian Child and other related matters was enacted in 2003 to be known as the Child Rights Act. The Act is to have the best interest of the child as paramount consideration in all actions.

The conference was declared opened by the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwumi Ambode, who was represented by the Deputy Governor, Dr Idiat
Adebule. The Governor promised in his goodwill message to look into the communiqué and recommendations that would emanate at the end of the conference.

Also speaking on the theme: ‘A Critical Appraisal of the Impact and Role of Family Courts in the Administration of Justice in Nigeria’, Head Family Court, Justice Y. Idowu, said: “Juvenile Justice Administration is the system of justice world over, which is applicable to juveniles and which is different from the justice system applicable to adults. The concept of juvenile justice is anchored on the recognition of the rights of the child to survival, growth, protection and effective participation in the society as enshrined in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (Beijing Rules).

“Although the Beijing Rules is not a treaty per se, many of its provisions have become binding on States by virtue of their incorporation in the Convention on Rights of the Child”.

Another discussant at the conference and Director, Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Mrs Omotola Rotimi, called on the need for “a holistic and over riding child protection system” that will include a range of actors.

Above all, she said child protection is the responsibility of every one who works with children. According to her, the underlying principle in relation to child protection is what is in the best interest of a child.

Rotimi said key findings of the Nigeria Violence Against Children study (VAC) in UNICEF summary report, indicates that there is high prevalence of violence against children in Nigeria.

She said: “Before the age of 18 years, approximately six out of 10 children experience some form of violence. Three out of this six experience physical violence, while one in four girls and one in ten boys experience sexual violence. One in six girls and one in five boys experience emotional violence by parents, care givers, adult relatives or persons known to them.

Mrs. Adefunmilayo Tejuoso in her intervention stated that family court is a creation of the Child’s Rights Act under Section 149, but replicated under most States that domesticated child’s Rights Laws, citing section 138 (1) of the Child’s Rights Law of Lagos State.

Tejuoso said: “Although the Domestic violence law does not directly vest jurisdiction in the family courts, but in practice, matters relating to domestic violence are often referred to the family court, due to the volatility involved. In virtually all the states, both the Magistrate courts and the High courts have family court division, depending on the gravity of the issue for adjudication. This is the
model set by the Child Rights Act at the National level”.

She pointed out reasons for the creation of family court, which includes: “to foster the best interest of the family, particularly with regard to the child.” According to her, it was created under the Child’s Rights Law because of the vulnerability of children who have no capacity in law to consent, take care or fend for themselves or issues that relates to family matters and domestic relations. These, she stated include marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, adoption, surrogacy, child abuse, child abduction, divorce, annulment, property settlements, alimony, child custody, visitation, child support, alimony awards, juvenile adjudication, paternity fraud among others.

“The family justice system exists to help families in the resolution of disputes amongst members of the family in an amicable manner, so that the rancor and bitterness associated with judicial proceeding are avoided.

“Under the family court system, the cases are dealt with by magistrates and judges specially trained to deal with issues affecting families. These disputes often involve very difficult circumstances, for example relationship breakdown or child contract,” Tejuoso said.

She also stated further that judges and magistrates work to make the circumstances of family disputes less adversarial and hearings can often be quite informal with, for example, all parties sitting around a table and children cannot be treated like adults who are matured enough to know what they are doing and the implications of their actions.

In a paper titled: ‘The Role of Government in the Family Justice System: The future and Challenges Confronting the System in Nigeria’, Prof Oluyemisi Bamgbose, suggested the need for unhindered information flow for the development of the justice system.

She said the federal government through the minister charged with matters relating to children, may require the State governments to furnish him or her with information on certain matters relating to a child in the given State. Similarly, any State government may also require the Local Government to furnish it with the same information.

“Schedule Seven of the Child’s Rights Act further supports this assertion that there is collaboration by the three tiers of Government in issues relating to the child. The three tiers of government must work towards a common goal, which will be in the best interest of the child,” she said.

Prof. Oluyemisi Obashoro-John of the Department of Lifelong and Continuing Education, University of Lagos emphasized the need for professionalism as fundamental to work, practice and learning of social work in Nigeria.

She said: “To be professional, the Social Worker should possess the following: Confidence, Conviction, Connection and Compassion.”

However, at the end of the programme, participants agreed that all the states of the federation should adopt Child Rights Act and to ensure smooth implementation of it. They also suggested that the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria be further amended to include the minimum age for marriage in to protect children from early marriage and its resultant negative impacts.

Participants also agreed that the three tiers of government should work together for the protection and benefit of the Child and the need for social workers to be licensed or certified, adding that government should prioritize funding of social welfare.

The participants also recommended that Social Workers should be made accountable with proper empowerment, increased salaries commensurate with the high workload and continued professional development.

They also recommended that training of Social Workers should include Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) techniques as mediation and other reconciliatory skills required in the performance of their duties.

They also resolved that in cases involving juveniles, there should be independent professional assessment of the individual and the family network, and that the Family Courts should be child friendly through the establishment of Children’s Lounges at the Courts, which will create a relaxed atmosphere that will enable them speak their minds freely.

It was emphasized that the substantive and overriding interest should be that of the child. “Flexibility must be the key word in court proceedings involving the child, as the Court should not over zealously adhere to technicalities in the performance of its duties. Cases involving Children should involve a degree of privacy to avoid stigmatization in the society,” the conferees agreed.

Another outcome of the conference is that there should be practice guidelines as regards a time frame within which matters involving children should be completed and that ever domestic violence case is a potential murder case, which require that Judicial officers apply some sense of urgency when conducting cases of such nature.

Participants at the conference agreed that when a doctor or witness gives evidence in court, the address and personal details of the witness must be protected and kept private as they may be targeted. The conferees also resolved that there should be an establishment of National Council of Family Court Judges and Magistrates.

They charged all stakeholders to be advocates, be creative and be aggressive in protecting the interests of the child. The participants believe that with the
implementation of the foregoing suggestions, issues relating to child abuse and violence against the vulnerable will be drastically reduced in our society.



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