PUTRAJAYA, Nov 17 — The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry is in discussions to ensure legal counsel for children.
Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim said the legal counsel would act in the best interests of children, especially in divorce proceedings and custody battles.
“Parents in the midst of a divorce usually appoint their own lawyers but the children caught in between don’t get a say,” Rohani said at the “Lawyers for Children: Their Right To Be Represented” forum yesterday.
Over 100 people from the legal fraternity, children’s rights groups and the Social Welfare Department (JKM) attended the forum.
UiTM Child Law Centre chairperson Dr Nadzriah Ahmad, member of the Malaysian Council for Child Welfare Datuk Yasmeen Muhammad Syariff, and Syariah Judiciary Department advisor Datuk Abdul Walid Abu Hassan were the panellists.
Rohani said with the abolishment of Section 17 (1) (h) of the Child Act 2001, children stuck in custody battles would no longer fall under the interim care of JKM.
“We are taking this very seriously because children should not be institutionalised and should stay with their families or relatives,” she said.
At a point, Rohani said the department had 300 abandoned newborns referred to it, making it impossible for its limited staff to handle other cases.
“With so many abandoned babies on our hands, we have to find ways to de-institutionalise children we take in from custody battles,” she said.
“Legal representation is necessary, so if avenues like sending the child to family members or relatives are exhausted, JKM can be a last resort.”
Dr Nadzriah said as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Malaysia is legally obligated to provide a platform for child advocates as part of its commitment to the protection and welfare of children.
“This does not only mean giving them a platform to speak but also to remain silent, especially in cases where the child is torn between the parents.
“Legal representation will ensure they are given guidance, are aware of legal procedures, and know the implications of the statements they make,” she added.
Other than divorce cases, Dr Nadzriah said legal representation for children should also be included in domestic violence, adoption and abuse cases.
“Children are usually in the centre of such cases and as a result suffer emotionally, mentally and sometimes physically, but we never ever listen to their side of the story,” she said.
Yasmeen said besides judicial cases, administrative cases require legal counsel as well.
“For example, these are for cases like children getting kicked out of school to have counsel inform them of and protect their rights,” she said.
According to Yasmeen, the government, rights groups and legal bodies should formulate a suitable system to ensure legal representation for children, adding counsels for children needed to be properly trained.
“We have to consider who is going to pay for legal costs in children cases and whether it is sustainable in the long run,” she said.
Abdul Walid said current Syariah laws would not hinder the proposal.
“We have existing laws that enable children to seek representation through their guardians. However, we do need to make improvements in executing these laws,” he said.