Minister expands free legal representation
From next year, parents in legal proceedings initiated by the State to intervene in families and remove children from parental authority will be entitled to free legal representation during these proceedings. They will then always be represented by a specialised youth lawyer, writes Minister Franc Weerwind for Legal Protection in a letter to the House of Representatives.
At present, free legal representation is already made available to parents affected by the childcare benefits scandal. In addition, the minister wants to provide such a free legal representation scheme for a period of 1.5 years to parents whose parental authority is terminated by a court measure. This is where the court transfers parental authority to a youth care institution, meaning that parents may no longer makes decisions concerning their children.
‘While subsidised legal aid was in practice already available to parents, at present many parents are not being represented by a lawyer in far-reaching legal proceedings. I want to offer parents extra support through this free legal representation scheme to ensure they get access to a lawyer who can properly represent their interests.’
Most far-reaching legal proceedings
The free legal representation will be introduced in steps to make its implementation feasible for the judiciary and the Legal Aid Board (Raad voor Rechtsbijstand). Accordingly, parents in the most far-reaching legal proceedings – those concerning an application for a court measure to terminate parental authority – will be eligible first. The courts, the Legal Aid Board and the legal profession will work together to implement the scheme. These parties will together ensure that in such cases, the family affected gets a phone call from a lawyer offering to provide free legal representation. The scheme will subsequently be expanded to include proceedings concerning the (emergency) placement in care of minors; the aim is for this to take place from July 2023.
The rights of families in cases where a child is placed in care will also be bolstered in other ways in the short term. The certified institutions will ensure that from early 2023, all their decisions on where a child may be raised will be submitted to the courts. Furthermore, the certified institutions will review how the decision-making on contact arrangements between parents and children placed in care can be improved.
Youth and family professionals will receive training to help them conduct better fact-finding investigations. In addition, they will be trained to better deal with parents’ discontent and complaints, including disciplinary complaints. The complaints form will be simplified. In the longer term, it will be reviewed whether the family court can take a more active role and whether the legal position of minors under guardianship can be improved. The minister wants to see it encoded in law that when siblings are placed in care, it is ensured that they stay together whenever possible.