PEI

Children's lawyer program to offer protection in custody disputes

Premier and justice minister Wade MacLauchlan says a new children's lawyer program to be introduced this year will offer protection to Prince Edward Island children who find themselves at the heart of a custody dispute between their parents.

'But it doesn't replace the child advocate' says opposition of program announced in budget

Currently only about one-quarter of the children involved in custody cases receive legal representation from the province, only those who are under the guardianship of the province. (Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images)

Premier and justice minister Wade MacLauchlan says a new children's lawyer program to be introduced this year will offer protection to Prince Edward Island children who find themselves at the heart of a custody dispute between their parents.

MacLauchlan said the legal system tends to consider parents as speaking for their children, but in a difficult break up, "the child's voice can tend to be lost. So this is really a move that would enable us to ... deal with family break up situations in a way that pays more attention to the child's voice and more attention to the rights of the child."

MacLauchlan said currently only about one-quarter of the children involved in custody cases receive legal representation from the province — only those who are under the guardianship of the province.

With the new program, MacLauchlan said representation will be extended to more children in cases "where the parents are so divided or where the issues are so much in conflict ... that the only way that the child's interests can be properly represented is for the child to have independent counsel."

MacLauchlan said $150,000 has been allocated for the program this year. That money is also meant to pay for a supervised access site where parents who split custody can be directed to transfer a child when doing so can be a point of conflict.

He said the children's lawyer program will use a combination of existing and new resources, including social workers.

Opposition pushing for child advocate

During the spring sitting of the legislature, the opposition has regularly criticized the protections available to children who may be at risk through difficult family break ups or other domestic situations.

An inquest in 2015 looking into the murder-suicide of a mother and her four-year-old son, led to a number of recommendations, including that the province appoint a child advocate.

Every other province in Canada has one, but P.E.I. has decided it can improve protection for children without appointing a child advocate.

"There's been a lot of debate here in the house and across the Island about the need for a child advocate as recommended by a coroner's inquest," said opposition MLA Brad Trivers during question period Thursday.

"You might say that it's a top priority of Islanders ... why was there no money allocated in this year's budget for a child advocate?"

Trivers said making more legal resources available for children is a step in the right direction.

"But it doesn't replace the child advocate."

He said the person acting as the voice for a child at risk shouldn't be a civil servant answerable to cabinet or the premier.

Trivers noted that in other provinces a child advocate is an independent officer of the legislature.

"A child advocate is an independent body ... without having that influence of government. They are the advocate for the child, not for the hub model, not for the deputy ministers, not for everybody involved in government, not for the premier. They're the advocate for the child. They're the child's voice," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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