AN ACPF INITIATIVE
ACPF established the Children’s Legal Protection Centre (CLPC) in 2005 as part of its Children and the Law Programme with the overall objective of ensuring access to justice to all children. In 2010, ACPF terminated the services of the CLPC in its initial set-up and re-established it in 2012, as a government-owned programme intended to develop and implement sustainable child protection strategies and mechanisms nationwide.
THE CHILDREN’S LEGAL PROTECTION CENTER (CLPC): ADVOCATING FOR IMPROVED ACCESS TO JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN
During its operations between 2005 and 2010, the CLPC was running under the aegis of ACPF providing administrative and technical support. It was located in the center of Addis Ababa with a friendly office environment for children. It was initially established to provide legal advice and judicial representation to children, as well as information, education and training on child rights. In August 2006, two additional areas were added to its remit: advocacy and psychosocial support. Its work was framed by the UNCRC and the ACRWC. It adopted an explicitly rights-based approach in its interventions.
The overall objective of the CLPC was to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights of children who were victims of exploitation, violence, abuse and neglect, or in conflict with the law, by:
- Providing free legal counselling to children and their families both for those who are victims of abuses and those in conflict with the law
- Providing judicial representation in cases involving complex legal issues of children
- Providing in-house counselling to children with legal cases at the Center and facilitating the access of children who are survivors of abuse to other complementary support services, such as temporary shelter and psychosocial assistance
- Providing legal education and training to various target groups
- Advocating for legal and policy reforms.
State infrastructure for child protection in Ethiopia was inadequate. There was no overarching Children’s Act codifying children’s legislation, and the CRC had not been published in the relevant legal Gazette. Previously, this led to ambiguity about whether the CRC could be directly applied in domestic courts. This ambiguity regarding the direct application of the CRC in courts was resolved in 2007 through court litigations handled by the CLPC:
LITIGATION AS A LONG-TERM CHANGE
This particular case involves a 15-year-old child who was living with his aunt since he was one-year old. His father was married with two children and running his own business. When the child's mother died two years earlier (in 2005) leaving behind a large amount of money and property, the father filed an application to the local court to be appointed as the legal guardian of the child. The court automatically granted him the guardianship. This is because, according to the relevant Ethiopian law, as long as the child's parents are alive, other individuals cannot have any legitimate ground to become guardians. The only issue examined by the court was, therefore, the hierarchy of relationship the parties have with the child, instead of their respective disposition to protect his best interest. Following his appointment as the guardian to the child, the father was recklessly squandering the assets left by the deceased mother.
The aunt, assisted by the CLPC, complained about the irresponsible actions of the father to the same court that granted the guardianship to the latter. But the court was not willing to entertain the complaint. Hence, the CLPC was forced to take the case on successive appeals to the Regional High Court, Supreme Court and, finally, to the Cassation Bench of the Regional Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the appeals were rejected at all levels on grounds of the same legal reasoning adopted by the lower court. After failing in all appellate levels, the last place left for the CLPC to try its 'chance' was the Cassation Bench of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia. Finally, the Cassation Bench reversed the decisions passed by the lower courts by applying the principle of the best interest of the child and assigned the aunt as the legal guardian of the child.
This was a landmark decision for the country and set a precedent for Article 3 of the CRC, regarding the best interests of the child to be the principal consideration for cases concerning children.
CONTRIBUTING TO THE ESTABLISHMENTS OF CHILD-FRIENDLY STRUCTURES
- A number of Child Protection Units have been established in police stations in Addis Ababa and some regional cities. These units have contributed to the better treatment of children in contact with the law; however, they face significant problems, including lack of legal mandate and appropriate training as well as financial and human resources constraints. Since its establishment, the CLPC has made a significant contribution to bridge the gap through regular training and education targeting the relevant staff members who are running these units.
- There were very few child-friendly courts in Ethiopia, except for some pilot benches. A sizable section of vulnerable groups of children were passing through vagrancy procedure and there were very poor provisions for legal aid for children in conflict with the law. Though the Ethiopian Criminal Procedure Code gives the courts the mandate to appoint a publicly funded lawyer to a child who has no parent or guardian to represent him or her, or who is charged with an offence punishable by a sentence of ten-years imprisonment or death, in practice however, children were rarely, if ever, legally represented in court. Once convicted, children were often imprisoned in adult prisons. Without representation, children often pleaded guilty when in fact they may not be guilty at all.
- The CLPC has initiated and strengthened existing child friendly structures that would have a long term impact towards facilitating access to justice. Accordingly, the CLPC, in consultation with the Federal First Instance Court designed pro-child custody assessment procedures. This document is currently in use at the Federal First Instance Court, Lideta Bench and has contributed to the improvement of the Court’s decision making process as judgments are based on the best interest of children. Similarly, the CLPC has lobbied for the introduction of a uniform maintenance guideline that suits the best interest of the child seeking support from persons who are responsible to provide maintenance. Most court files clearly show that decisions on child maintenance are decided arbitrarily without considering the best interest of the children. Currently, the draft Guideline is being used by judges for rulings on child maintenance cases in uniform manner and ensuring the best interest of the child.
Aside from the inadequacies of the child justice system, there was a significant lack of data in relation to children’s rights on areas including domestic adoption, street children, children involved in armed conflict, children without parental care, children involved in the justice system, and sexually abused and trafficked children. In its five-year existence, through research, the CLPC has achieved considerable success in filling some of the gaps in the provision of legal aid and psychosocial support for children, as well as in raising awareness more generally about children’s rights and advocating for policy reform.
From 2005 to 2010, the CLPC has:
- Provided legal counselling and judicial representation to 5,712 children (child victims and children in conflict with the law) as well as direct and indirect psychosocial services to 1,035 children;
- Prepared independent reports on referred cases from the Federal First Instance Court on custody assessment and visitation rights
- Organised capacity building training for media and community-based organisations
- Disseminated information on various issues regarding children’s rights using newspapers, radio and television programmes
- Conducted research on various issues, including children in prison and detention centers and the legal rights of children living with HIV/ AIDS
- Provided training for judges, public prosecutors and police officers
- Advocated on the following five issues, including the organisation of debates between law school students at Addis Ababa University:
- Determination of custody disputes in the best interest of the child
- Admissibility of DNA test results as proof of paternity
- Determination of child maintenance
- Bail rights for the accused charged with sexual abuse against children
- Admissibility of claims for the emancipation of the child; the CLPC has seen several cases where children are unable to apply to the court to challenge a court decision that appointed a guardian who has become abusive or exploitative.