Tuesday, 20th July 2021
Turbulent year for children sees Education overtake Family Law as biggest issue facing callers to Children’s Rights Alliance Helpline
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted serious concerns about the efficacy of both the family law and education systems in responding to the rights and needs of children and young people. That’s according to the Children’s Rights Alliance, who published the 2020 Annual Report of its Helpline and Legal Advice Clinics today (20.07.2021). According to the report, one in four callers had queries in relation to education – the first time education has overtaken family law issues since the Helpline was established in 2018.
The Children’s Rights Alliance Helpline and Legal Advice Clinics were established to provide legal information specifically about children’s rights and free one-to-one legal advice appointments with a solicitor for children or their parents. According to the Children’s Rights Alliance, it is not surprising that in a turbulent year for children and young people, the majority of calls in 2020 related to the impact of Covid-19 on children’s school lives. Another key issue relating to education was the prevalence of reduced timetables, which limit the amount of time a child can spend in school.
Commenting on the findings of the report, Julie Ahern, Legal and Policy Manager at the Children’s Rights Alliance said: “One of the most concerning education issues emerging from calls to the Helpline is the use of reduced school days or reduced timetables. We have heard from families with children as young as six who have been placed on a reduced school day, sometimes for most of the school year. In all of our cases in 2020, there was no plan in place about how to reintegrate the child back into a full school day and, in the vast majority of cases, children were only in school for an hour or two a day.
“Reduced timetables is one of the most serious human rights issues impacting children, as it restricts their constitutional rights to access education. The lasting impact it can have on a child’s life cannot be ignored as ultimately, it reduces their opportunities to build relationships with their peers or fulfil their full potential.
“There is currently no formal system for recording reduced hours in the education system. Without this, we are concerned that the practice could be misused and impact the educational needs and rights of children at all ages, including as we have heard, very young children. Schools need guidance to ensure these measures are used for the right reasons. Guidelines have been developed and yet have not been published or implemented. We need to see these published without delay especially as we are about to head into a new academic year with new difficulties facing students and staff due to the ongoing pandemic.
“For some families, the start of the new school year will bring additional stress and worry. We received a significant number of calls from families struggling to access an appropriate school place for their child particularly because they have a disability. The findings of this recent report and the trends across the last three years of our helpline service really signal the need for greater attention to paid to school places and support allocation for children with special educational needs.
“Our callers simply did not know where to turn when they felt their children’s rights were being denied in the education system. There is a clear gap in public awareness of how to deal with concerns relating to school policies and the education system in Ireland.”
Key report findings
Other key findings in the report include:
- This year saw an increase in queries (11 per cent) from other NGO organisations and statutory bodies, pointing to a gap in adequate legal resources for organisations working to protect and support children and young people.
- Parents and guardians made up the majority of callers to the helpline (65 per cent), while five per cent of callers were children or young people.
- As the first lockdown commenced in March 2020, the helpline saw an increase in the number of queries about access visits between separated parents and their children. Parents were confused about the potential impact of the restrictions and lockdown, and whether access should remain the same.
- The blanket ban placed on children entering shops at the early stages of the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on people parenting alone and people whose partners were frontline workers.
Also speaking about the report was Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, who said: “The report shines an important spotlight on the impact of Covid-19 and the legal issues facing children, young people and their families. Our service was established to help fill the void of child-centred and child-specific legal information and support. Our aim is very specific but the need for it is clear when the same issues for young people and for parents are persisting for the third year in a row.
“It is clear some families are struggling. Struggling to navigate a complex justice system or an education system that is not meeting the needs of their child. Some families simply do not know where to go to find the right support or an advocate who will help them. During the pandemic engaging with these systems became all the more difficult. Accessing legal advice specifically on children’s rights and issues can be almost impossible for most families. Children and young people under 18 have no enforceable right to legal aid or legal advice. They cannot take cases on their own. The Government needs to step up and step in, to help fight for the rights of children and help them have their voices heard because right now, many feel like they are doing it alone.
“As a result of the pandemic and the nature of the queries we were receiving, we expanded our helpline service and now offer it three days a week.
“This year we also saw an increase in the number of queries from NGOs and statutory bodies. The calls were often relating to complex and cross-sectional issues as the sector tried to grapple with the unpredictable impact of the pandemic on young people and families. The level of complex cases referred from other organisations highlights the need for services like our Helpline and Legal Advice Clinics that offer specialist information and advice across a breadth of issues.”
Partnership with Eversheds Sutherland
At an event highlighting the findings of the report today, the Children’s Rights Alliance announced a new partnership with law firm Eversheds Sutherland. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the legal issues faced by children and families. The partnership with Eversheds Sutherland will mean a greater number of families can avail of the Children’s Rights Alliance’s services through an increased number of free legal advice clinics.
Commenting on the partnership, Eoin Mac Aodha, Partner at Eversheds Sutherland said: “We are delighted to partner with the Children’s Rights Alliance and to support those in need who contact the helpline seeking legal advice. We recognise, particularly as a result of lockdown, that there are significant challenges for children and young people and we want to use our privilege of legal expertise to assist some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We hope the legal clinics, in some small way, will provide legal assistance by contributing to people’s understating and awareness of their legal rights and improve their access to justice.
“This is the first time that we have done pro bono work solely focused on children’s rights. At Eversheds Sutherland, we have a history of pro bono work. We have a pro bono committee and standardised approach to this work and we partner with the Public Interest Alliance to identify pro bono opportunities for our lawyers.”
The Helpline and Legal Advice Clinics Annual Report 2020 is available to download from the Children’s Rights Alliance website.
Contact: Emily Brennan, Alice PR & Events, Tel: 01-5582151 / 086-1658629, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, is available for interview.
• Julie Ahern, Legal and Policy Manager at the Children’s Rights Alliance, is available for interview.
Notes to Editor:
Please include the details of the Helpline for your readers:
Helpline: 01 902 0494
• Mondays 10am to 2pm
• Wednesdays 2pm to 7pm
• Friday 10am - 12 noon
About the Children’s Rights Alliance
Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL, #CRAHelpline20