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].

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.