An Argument for Treating Children as a ‘Special Case’

This chapter’s argument stems from the premise that legal language should speak for itself. The ‘paramountcy’ principle suggests the prioritization of children’s interests, and ‘children’s rights’ suggests some aspect of distinctiveness to children’s interests. But there is academic consensus in respect of both that children’s interests cannot and should not be prioritized over those of others. This chapter examines the justification for the contrary perspective, and for treating children as a prioritized ‘special case’ in all legal decisions affecting them.

Four key counter-arguments frame the discussion. First, the ‘social-construct’ objection: as a social construct, childhood cannot sustain the prioritization of children’s interests over those of others. Second, the ‘vulnerability’ objection: children’s vulnerability is either not unique or suggests dependency or interdependency, not prioritization. Third, the ‘family autonomy’ objection: parents’ rights and the family unit justify deference of children’s interests. Fourth, the ‘equality’ objection: equal moral consideration makes prioritization unjustifiable.

[This chapter is published in Elizabeth Brake and Lucinda Ferguson (eds), Philosophical Foundations of Children’s and Family Law (OUP 2018).  A pre-edited version is available here.]

Commentary on Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General)

This chapter comprises a commentary on a rewritten judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada in Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v Canada (Attorney General) 2004 SCC 4. That decision concerned the constitutionality of the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence to the physical punishment of children.  After outlining the original judgment, I critique the rewritten judgment, and ask whether reframing the legal issue in terms of children’s rights might be more likely to invert the premise of the s43 debate than a human rights perspective.  It will be published in Helen Stalford, Kathryn Hollingsworth, and Stephen Gilmore, eds, Children’s Rights Judgments (Hart, 2017).

A pre-editing version of my chapter can be found here.

Child Protection: A Critical Introduction – Lecture series

These are the handouts for the overview lectures I provide on child protection: a critical introduction.  I cover the following issues:

  • Issue 1 – A historical introduction to child abuse and child protection;
  • Issue 2 – Key features and values of the current English approach to child protection  [handout for issues 1 and 2 here];
  • Issue 3 – General principles of child protection in the Children Act 1989;
  • Issue 4 – Part III of the Children Act 1989:  Local authority support for children and families  [handout for issues 3 and 4 here];
  • Issue 5 – Part V of the Children Act 1989:  Investigation and assessment  [handout here];
  • Issue 6 – Part IV of the Children Act 1989:  Compulsory intervention  [handouts here, here, here, and here, concluding handout combines with issue 7, below];
  • Issue 7 – Challenging the local authority  [handout for the last part of issue 6, as well as issue 7 here];
  • Issue 8 – Outcomes for children in care;
  • Issue 9 – Serious case reviews: findings over time  [handout for issues 8 and 9 here];
  • Issue 10 – Reports, inquiries, and reviews;
  • Issue 11 – Conclusion on the current approach;
  • Issue 12 – Academic criticisms of the present approach and ideas for reform  [handout for the final three issues here].

The “Best Interests” of the Child Principle: Looking Beyond the Aspirations of Universal Embrace


Whilst the child population of the People’s Republic of China has been declining in recent years,[1] it still has the largest population of children in the world.[2]  The size of the child population, combined with factors such as its vast, varying geography and its economic development, means that children’s lives vary enormously within China.  Thinking about how the law should regulate decisions affecting children’s lives within a Chinese context highlights the difficulties of being able to generalise even for a single jurisdiction, let alone globally.  Yet, that is ostensibly what the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, the CRC, purports to do.

But what does this mean?  Imagine a common situation:

A married couple have young children, say a two-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl.  The wife had worked prior to the first child but, after the birth of the first child, she stayed home to raise them.  The husband has a good job, but he works long hours to provide financially for the family.  For this reason, he does not have much of a relationship with the children, but it is clear that he loves them.  Their marriage breaks down and they divorce. 

Does the universality of the CRC mean that the answer as to how the children should be raised now needs to be the same in every country?  If so, what is the right answer?  Or do local considerations matter?  And, if so, how?  What if the absence of a strong welfare state means that the financial means of the household raising the children are critical to those children’s life opportunities?  Does this suggest that the father alone should raise the children?  If we focus on the emotional bond the children have developed with their mother, are we punishing the father for showing his love and commitment to the children through paid work?  What if, when he was working those long hours, he viewed it as a short-term sacrifice of time with his children in order to be able to provide them a better future, when he would be able to spend more time with them?

Whilst simply dividing the children’s time evenly between both parents might appear to do what is in the children’s “best interests”, might this be more about parents’ rights than children’s “best interests”?  Of course, there will be many cases where parents will be able to decide themselves to divide their children’s time between their two homes but those cases in which the law, via a court order, has to step in, are the very cases in which such division is least likely to be successful.  Hong Kong is in the midst of considering this issue again, with proposals to move from the language of ‘custody’ to ‘parental responsibility’ and from ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ to ‘child arrangements orders’ as in England and Wales.  But much of the potential for the success of such reform will turn on the availability of state services to support non-intact families in working together.  What if a court knows that state resources are inadequate for this purpose in any particular jurisdiction?  Can that serve as an argument against such an order?  Or should they make it anyway because of the children’s (or parent’s) entitlements?

The ‘best interests’ of the child is now a universal principle globally applicable to the treatment of children, whether as a result of a particular state’s domestic law or international legal obligations.  All countries except the United States have ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, hence owe obligations under it.  Numerous countries have further entrenched their obligations by incorporation and even constitutionalisation.  This relationship to international law is often further complicated by earlier or independent (non-incorporating) use of the ‘best interests’ principle directly in domestic law, as in the English ‘welfare principle’.  Yet, the principle is also commonly subject to significant criticism such as that it is ‘indeterminate’ and has too narrow a focus.

Outline for the Lecture

In this lecture, I will draw on recent court decisions to examine the value of the ‘best interests’ principle in practice beyond the aspiration expressed by its adoption.  Whilst the ‘best interests’ principle has been universally embraced, to what extent can it offer a universal understanding of what is ‘best’ for children?  Should individual countries contextualise universal concerns or should there be truly local approaches to ‘best interests’?  Does it matter whether any particular country’s obligations under the ‘best interests’ principle are grounded in international law, domestic law, or both?  This issue turns at least in part on how courts in any particular jurisdiction understand the relationship between ‘best interests’ and children’s rights.  In individual cases, how can and should we determine by which criteria to determine the ‘best’ outcome for any child involved in a legal dispute?  In particular, how do children’s ‘best interests’ relate to parents’ interests?  What is the appropriate role for well-being indicators?  Could or even must a court be free to determine that it is ‘best’ for a child to cry in a BMW car, rather than laugh on the back of a bicycle?

Whilst the following discussion asks general questions, I necessarily cannot draw on the full range of jurisdictions in my discussion.  I include examples from English, Canadian, and European law to demonstrate contrasting perspectives on similar issues in different jurisdictions.  In the discussion that will follow my presentation, I look forward to audience members sharing their perspectives on the Chinese approach, as well as how the Chinese approach compares to that in other jurisdictions.

[1] The China Internet Information Center reports that the 2000 census found that there were 290 million children under 14 years old (22.89 percent of the population), which was 4.8 percent less than in 1990.  See China Internet Information Center, ‘China Has 290 Million Children’, online: <> (18 March 2016).  Evidencing a further decline, Naftali reports that the Sixth National Census in 2010 found that there were 279 million children under the age of 18 years (21 percent of the population).  See Orna Naftali, Children in China (Polity Press, 2016) 1.

[2] Naftali, ibid.


A copy of the powerpoint presentation is available here.

Children’s Rights – Lecture series

These are the handouts for the overview lectures I provide on children’s rights: theory and legal examples.  I cover the following issues:

  • Issue 1 – The nature of childhood [handout here (also covering part of issue 2)];
  • Issue 2 – Three concepts that could govern the legal regulation of children – duty, rights, and welfare [handout here (covering the remainder of issue 2)];
  • Issue 3 – Sources of children’s rights:  (1) United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child [handout here] and (2) the European Convention on Human Rights [handout here];
  • Issue 4 – Does it matter which approach we adopt?  (rights, welfare, or duty?)  [handouts here and here].

Parenthood: Legal Parental Status and Parental Responsibility – Lecture series

These are the handouts for the overview lectures I provide on parenthood: legal parental status and parental responsibility.  I cover the following issues (issues 1-3 were lectured on this year; issue 4 was included last year; and issue 5 two years ago):

  • Issue 1 – Who or what is a parent?  [handout here];
  • Issue 2 – Legal motherhood  [handouts here and here];
  • Issue 3 – Legal fatherhood  [handouts here and here];
  • Issue 4 – Parental responsibility  [handouts from last year here and here];
  • Issue 5 – The relationship between legal parental status and parental responsibility  [handout from two years’ ago here].

The Jurisprudence of Making Decisions Affecting Children: An Argument to Prefer Duty to Children’s Rights and Welfare

This chapter embraces the reasons for thinking that children possess children’s rights but suggests that these aims are currently better achieved through a duty-based approach to legal decision-making affecting children. My argument proceeds from the position that we are justified in seeing children as a “special case”, which means that children benefit from additional legal protection and priority beyond fundamental human rights that apply to all individuals alike. In deciding how best to recognise children as a special case, I suggest that three main competing approaches, children’s rights, welfare, and duties owed to children, should be seen as simply tools – language descriptors, ways of framing individual considerations, processes, and frameworks – for working with the same substantive content. Which approach we prefer or emphasise should depend on how well it guides decision-makers towards decisions that lead to or make more likely better outcomes for affected children.   After briefly outlining why current conceptions of children’s rights cannot meet this test, I explain why a welfare or “best interests” approach is no more able to satisfy this objective than the alternatives. The remainder of the chapter is focused on exploring the potential of a duty-based approach. I argue that duty can have three roles: as a tool to give specificity and resolve conflicts in current rights- and welfare-based decision-making; as a theoretical framework of itself, focused on the decision-maker; and as the basis for anchoring a virtue-led view of the aim for legal decision-making affecting children – to enable children to flourish on their own terms. I conclude by exploring the practical implications of a duty-based argument and discuss three key examples, namely the Court of Appeal’s decision in Re A (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) (2001), the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, and private law disputes concerning children.

Published in Diduck, Peleg, and Reece, eds, Law in Society: Reflections on Children, Family, Culture and Philosophy (Essays in Honour of Michael Freeman) (Brill, 2015)

The pre-print version is available here.

School Exclusion and the Law: A Literature Review and Scoping Survey of Practice

(co-authored with Naomi Webber, University of Oxford)

Non-lawyers implement the law on permanent exclusion, particularly school management teams, with the support and guidance of local authority (LA) officers.

In this review, we evaluate the contents of, and relationship between law and practice to examine to what extent they are coherent. Divergence between law and practice is not of itself a basis for criticising the actions of non-lawyers, but instead suggests that the law might not be fit for purpose. The law should support ‘best practices’ and restrain practice that is not in the “best interests” of either the individual child at risk of exclusion and/or of other children and staff in the school.

Our discussion focuses on recent research and secondary literature, as well as our own scoping survey of permanent exclusion in schools across four LAs in the same Department for Education (DfE) Statistical First Release (SFR) region. The second section outlines the current law, presents statistical changes in the rate of exclusions and appeals lodged over time and analyses how reforms to the law and legal framework may have affected the statistics. The third section evaluates the values that underpin the legal framework, particularly autonomy, equality, “best interests”, and participation and procedural rights. The fourth section examines current knowledge of the way in which the law is understood by various groups of non-lawyers in the exclusion process. This section also draws on findings from our scoping survey, conducted between July and September 2014. Our scoping survey highlights the potential significance of school and LA culture within this legal discretionary framework in determining the likelihood that a pupil will be excluded. In particular, analysis of individual schools’ responses regarding exclusions against publicly available data on their pupil-level risk factors and indicators of school culture suggest that school culture and disposition toward the governing law has a role to play in determining the likelihood that a pupil will be excluded. This role has not been examined to date, and our scoping survey results reveal it is a complex one, which may also be interwoven with the LA culture and disposition towards the governing law. The work of LA inclusion and exclusion officers is central to this latter issue. Finally, we highlight a number of more discrete matters for further research.

Note: Our review has been updated to include discussion of reforms introduced by the DfE’s 2015 statutory guidance on exclusion.

This paper is published by the University of Oxford (2015), and also available here.

Not Merely Rights for Children But Children’s Rights: The Theory Gap and the Assumption of the Importance of Children’s Rights

This article aims to reinvigorate the debate over the nature and value of the claim that children have children’s rights. Whilst the language of rights and children’s rights continues to be widely employed, and even relied upon, in many situations involving the legal regulation of children we lack strong child-centred evidence that it is better to regulate children through the lens of children’s rights, rather than their ‘best interests’ or in terms of duties owed to them.

My argument proceeds in four stages. Firstly, I distinguish between rights for children and children’s rights. Understood in the sense of fundamental human rights, children are plainly rights-holders. The critical debate relates to children’s rights. Secondly, I argue that the expressive and procedural reasons for affirming that children hold children’s rights are contingent upon improved outcomes. Thirdly, I contend that we do not currently have a child-centred theory of children’s rights that improves, or increases the likelihood of improved outcomes in legal practice. This is not a claim that children do not have children’s rights. My argument undermines the current potential of both individual children’s rights and a rights-based framework of reasoning to improve outcomes for children.

Finally, I argue that without such a theory we currently have no good evidence that it benefits children to think of them in terms of children’s rights in law. This is an optimistic conclusion as it suggests that with greater attention on making decision-making truly child-centred, or explicitly recognizing the inability to do so, the purposes for which we want to believe that children have children’s rights might be better achieved than they are at present.

This paper is published in (2013) 21 International Journal of Children’s Rights 177-208, and available here.

‘Families in All Their Subversive Variety’: Over-Representation, the Ethnic Child Protection Penalty, and Responding to Diversity Whilst Protecting Children

This article explores the neglected issue of the over-representation in the child protection system of children from ethnic, cultural, religious, racial, and linguistic minorities. It focuses on the accommodation of children’s diverse backgrounds within the s31(2) threshold and s1 “best interests” stages of intervention under the Children Act 1989. Firstly, it introduces the ethnic child protection penalty as a new tool for capturing the complex nature of over-representation of these children. Secondly, it proposes a framework for understanding the judicial approach in higher court decisions on the current extent and nature of accommodation. Thirdly, it employs the penalty concept to help explain why case law analysis reveals difficulties with the current factor-based approach, whereas empirical research suggests generally satisfactory accommodation in practice. It concludes by proposing a contextualised framework for decision-making in relation to child protection.

The paper is published in (2014) 63 Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 43-87, and available here.