Advocating for children’s rights on Law Day – and every day
Law Day – which falls on April 16th this year – was initiated by the Canadian Bar Association to mark the signing of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter) in April 1982, with the aim of promoting public understanding of the justice system, and the role of lawyers and judges in guaranteeing an open and independent justice system.
We have all heard the old adage that “children should be seen and not heard.” The legal profession and the judiciary have an important role to play in not only dispelling this misplaced assumption, but in also ensuring that children become active participants whenever decisions are being made that affect them. In this regard, article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention) provides that children have the right to express their opinions freely, and to have their opinions taken into account in matters that affect them, including in judicial and administrative proceedings.
While we have made great strides in our jurisprudence in upholding the values and principles of the Charter, we have not made corresponding gains in advancing the child rights enshrined in the Convention. The Convention is an under-utilized and often misunderstood human rights instrument ratified by Canada in 1991, which has the potential to be more effectively utilized by lawyers and judges as an interpretative tool to provide a stronger child-centred lens when considering various provisions of the Charter.
Fortunately, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) and the legal profession have stepped up to the plate by strengthening the advocacy capacity of the legal profession to promote children’s rights and give greater priority to the views and interests of children in the legislative and policy-making process.
In this context, UNICEF Canada has had the privilege of being part of a ground-breaking initiative undertaken by the CBA resulting in the creation of a national Children’s Law Committee and a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) Subcommittee for the very first time. This has been an important development to ensure that the interests of adults do not trump the legal interests and rights of children.
In the short history of our Children’s Law Committee, we have already made a large difference by contributing to CBA submissions to the federal government on subjects as diverse as cyberbullying, the presumption of equal parenting and the minimum age of marriage – to ensure that all impacts upon children, be they direct or indirect, are properly taken into consideration before laws are enacted.
We have likewise been active in participating in continuing legal education webinars for the legal profession on a variety of topics relevant to the legal interests of children. As well, we are currently developing a digital toolkit on children’s rights that will be widely available to lawyers, the judiciary and other relevant stakeholders.
Our Committee has also been an effective catalyst in establishing CBA Children’s Law Sections in a growing number of Canadian provinces and in promoting the use of Child Rights Impact Assessments in legislative and policy development.
Since the CBA introduced Law Day in 1983 to commemorate the signing of the Charter, which guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms for all Canadians, it is only fitting that the CBA be the vehicle for establishing a national Children’s Law Committee dedicated to advancing the human rights and dignity of all Canadian children. UNICEF Canada is proud to have been part of this exciting collaboration from the very beginning.
With children’s rights recognized through respectful child-centred laws – and championed by strong advocates in the legal profession – we can create a more just and equitable Canada where every child is given the opportunity to ‘dream big’ and reach his or her full potential.
Marv Bernstein is the Chief Policy Advisor, UNICEF Canada.