Meet... Charlotte Mol, researcher of children's rights: "Empowerment and protection, that's what it's all about"

Charlotte Mol

When a legal proceeding concerns your life, you have the right to be heard as a child. Your opinion matters. This is provided by all children's rights treaties, but what does this mean exactly? And how do we put this into practice? Charlotte Mol received her doctorate degree cum laude on the right of children to participate in family law proceedings. She analysed more than 180 cases of the European Court of Human Rights. “What motivates me is the hope and wish for children get the best outcome in family law disputes.”

What kind of legal proceedings are we talking about?

Divorce, custody and access matters but also cases involving international child abduction or care proceedings. Suppose, for example, that a father has no parental authority over the child, but he would like to have contact with his son or daughter. He can go to court to request a visitation arrangement. The child's right to express his or her opinion in these matters may mean that the child tells the judge that he or she doesn't really want to see the father anymore. It is then up to the judge to weigh the child's views against the interests of the father.

In the case law I have studied, some parents complained to the European Court on behalf of the child, but it was not always clear whether the child agreed or even knew about the case! As a child you do not always know whether a legal proceeding is being conducted on your behalf or concerning you.

As a child you do not always know whether a court case is being conducted on your behalf

What are the most important recommendations from your research for the Netherlands?

One of the recommendations concerns the age to participate in a law proceeding. Based on my research into the international and European human rights standards, the age limit in the Netherlands appears to be too high. Here, children ages 12 years and older are invited by the judge for a conversation. This age could be lowered to 8 years old or maybe even younger. When you're younger than 12 you should also have the opportunity to express your opinion. Other recommendations are that the task of the Dutch guardian ad litem is insufficiently focused on the aim of allowing children to express their opinion. Moreover, in the Netherlands, there is insufficient information given to children about their right to be heard.

Is it beneficial for a child to participate in a law proceeding?

That's what we assume in the human rights framework, however there are sometimes doubts about this. In the past, we did not want to burden children with legal worries and responsibilities. Later that idea evolved into: we must give them the opportunity to express their opinion. That would be better for their well-being and their sense of autonomy. Better for the feeling of being heard and making a difference.

In the Netherlands, judges are hearing children in proceedings from the age of 12. This could be lowered the age of 8.

There are questions and concerns being raised, for example about the child being influenced by adults. What are the child's own views and what is perhaps whispered in their ears by their parents? Children should not feel that they are being given a responsibility that they do not have to bear. However, as a judge, how can you know whether a child is being manipulated? And if they are, what does that mean for the child's right to participate, and what should judges do with that information? I would like to conduct further research on that.

Who do you want to work with in the near future?

"Together with colleagues from pedagogy and psychology, we are working on a research proposal on child participation that goes further than just the law. We want to know how the child is being heard during and after divorce? Is the child also being heard at home? What is the effect of participation in legal proceedings on the well-being of children and does it differ between children?

The team would consist of:

With surveys, diaries, interviews and observations, we want to investigate the possibilities children have to participate in divorce at home, in mediation and in court.”

With a team of researchers from different fields, I would like to investigate the effect of participation on the well-being of children.

Why did you choose family law for your career?

I had an interest in law from a very young age. When I was younger I wanted to work at the United Nations. After my bachelor study in Maastricht, I moved to Utrecht to focus on international and European family law during my research master. For my PhD, I wanted to explore a legal topic that was social and people-oriented. Children's rights, and especially child participation, are about protection and empowerment. I think that's extremely important.

Children's rights are provided by major international treaties. Politicians and legislators always say: we are working on it, we are pursuing children's rights. But how does that work in practice when the invitation to participate falls on your doormat at home? Does the child get to see it? Does he understand what's in it? Will he get a chance to say something? And does his opinion matter? When it comes to a family law, conflicts or legal proceedings, such as divorce, I want children to have tje best possible experience, with the least amount of harm.

Youth research at Utrecht University

This interview is part of a series in which Utrecht youth researchers talk about their profession and motivation. They belong to the strategic research theme Dynamics of Youth.

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