Child-friendly justice

New: Children’s authentic voices to be heard in court proceedings

Tina Dimic Raicevic
A child
UNICEF Montenegro / Dusko Miljanic / 2018
20 July 2018

PODGORICA, 20 July 2018 - When making decisions in the best interests of children, in family proceedings the court should take into account the opinion of the child. This voice should represent the real will and opinion of the child. With the amendments made to the Family Law in 2017, the Ministry of Justice, supported by UNICEF, has allowed the voice of the child to be heard in exactly that way.

This is claimed by Milena Brajovic, a judge of the Basic Court in Podgorica, who believes that these amendments help the courts make decisions that will be in the best interests of the child. She recently decided for the first time that a support person should be involved in the process, and this institution is a key amendment to the Family Law.

Sutkinja Milena Brajovic, a judge
UNICEF Montenegro / Dusko Miljanic / 2018
Judge Milena Brajovic, recounts her experience of engaging a support person in a court case involving children in Podgorica, during July 2018

The support person primarily takes care of the best interests of the child. Through working with the child, this person can determine his or her genuine opinion. On one hand, this enables the court hear the voice of a child, and, on the other, it prevents the court from exposing the child to any additional stress and hearings in the courtroom, which was the case before we had this institution.

Milena Brajovic, a judge

Milena adds that the decision on whether to include a support person in the court proceeding is made in cooperation with the Centre for Social Work.

“I recently decided to include a support person in proceedings for the first time. It was a divorce case, where the opinion of a 13-year-old girl differed from that of her brothers and sisters regarding who got custody of them. Representatives of the Centre for Social Work proposed a hearing of the girl in order to ascertain her opinion, and then I made the decision to engage the support person,” Milena says.

In essence, as a result of the introduction of the “support person”, a child no longer has to be heard in the courtroom, but the genuine views of the child are obtained in a much more appropriate and child-friendly way.

“At a time scheduled with the girl’s parents, the support person came to the court and interviewed her alone without the parents’ presence, in an independent room which was neither a court office nor a courtroom. By talking to her, the support person ascertained the opinion of the child that would be presented at the hearing,” Milena explains.

Judge Milena Brajovic, with her collegue
UNICEF Montenegro / Dusko Miljanic / 2018
Judge Milena Brajovic during a training session on how to respect the best interests of the child in court proceedings organized by the Ministry of Justice with the support of UNICEF for various profiles of professionals working in the justice system, in Budva, in June 2018

In order for the judiciary in Montenegro to be truly child-friendly, the Ministry of Justice, with UNICEF’s support, has been organizing trainings of not only support persons, but of all professionals involved in the judicial system, with the aim of helping them to better recognize and realize the best interests of the child in court proceedings.

In addition to training professionals, which must be done in continuity, Montenegro must work on creating some physical preconditions as well – meaning that it is necessary to have a room in each municipality where any professional can talk to a child in an environment that is accessible to the child.

Nela Krnic, Coordinator of the Child Protection Programme at the UNICEF Office in Montenegro

The support person is now introduced into Montenegro’s justice system, but more work is needed to make it as effective as possible. In particular, a protocol/rulebook needs to be developed to define precisely how a child should be approached. Further, adequate, child-friendly spaces need to established all over the country for meetings with children to happen in a relaxed environment which helps them to speak freely and sincerely. That, UNICEF says, is one of the priorities for future activities.