20 years of fighting for children’s rights

Posted on November 14, 2018

The Centre for Child Law is 20 years old – Tukkievaria chatted with the centre’s Director, Professor Ann Skelton, about its past, present and future.

How did the Centre for Child Law begin?

It was established in 1998 by Professor Trynie Boezaart, whose vision was to strengthen the discipline of child law as an academic field and lay the foundation for practical legal work that could assist children. I joined in 2003 and established the strategic litigation project. The aim of the project was – and still is – to promote children’s rights through the courts.

What have been some of the landmark cases and rulings that you’ve worked on?

The centre’s first case in the Constitutional Court was S v M, which established that when a court is sentencing a primary caregiver of children, the best interests of the children must be factored in when deciding on an appropriate sentence – and could tip the scales in favour of a non-custodial sentence. This judgment has proved to be one of the centre’s most important ones; it was the first time that the Constitutional Court spelt out in detail what is meant by “best interests of the child”. It is the most quoted case in children’s rights in South Africa, and is also cited by courts in other countries.

Other big cases have been Centre for Child Law v Minister of Justice, which established that child offenders should not be subjected to lengthy “minimum sentences” because for children, detention should be a last-resort measure. Then there was Teddy Bear Clinic v Minister of Justice, which determined that adolescents engaging in consensual sexual activity should not be treated as criminals. Around the same time, we were successful in a case about whether child sex offenders should automatically go on the sex offenders’ register; the court stated they should not, unless there are very strong reasons to do so.

The cases I have mentioned were all to do with the criminal justice system, but we have also had cases in the Constitutional Court about civil matters such as inter-country adoption, and whether children’s privacy should be protected during divorce matters. In 2016 the centre’s Deputy Director, Karabo Ozah, argued a case about children’s rights to know their origins in the context of surrogacy. And with regard to the right to education, we were involved in cases about eradicating mud schools, getting desks and chairs for children, and ensuring pregnant learners are not excluded from school.

How do you feel knowing that you’ve had such a huge impact on children’s lives and the South African legal landscape?

The work is satisfying and frustrating all at the same time. It is great when you see a mud school replaced with bricks and mortar, but the quality of education is still a major problem – and this is something that litigation probably cannot fix. For this reason, the centre does not use only litigation to change things – it is not the only tool in our legal toolbox! We also do advocacy, make submissions to Parliament, and engage with government departments by assisting with the drafting of laws and regulations. We write articles and publish reports, and are fully engaged with developments in the field.

What’s the one thing you wish you could change instantly for South African children?

If every child in South Africa had someone who looked after him or her, that would be a great start. However, poverty impedes the realisation of the rights of children, even those who do have someone caring for them. So proper care in functional families first, access to healthcare and education second, then eradication of poverty, and caregivers and children knowing their rights. This is an ambitious wish list.

Is the centre involved in teaching and learning?

The centre is involved in teaching Child Law at final year LLB and master’s level. We also have an annual Child Law Moot, a “mock court case” competition that attracts law student competitors from all over the country. We have also sent students to an international moot court competition in Leiden in the Netherlands, and they did very well.

You and your team are proactive in responding to the media on certain topical cases and issues that affect children. How important is it for academics to communicate their research and findings to the public through the mainstream media, including written pieces, such as for The Conversation?

The centre engages with the media, often commenting on legal developments and also explaining our own cases. It is important to communicate law in an “every day” manner – this is part of effective advocacy. Research findings need to be disseminated if they are to make a difference. However, we are very careful to protect the identities of specific children, unless they are old enough to consent to their stories and names being published. Sometimes this can be effective. For example, this year we assisted a boy with disabilities get access to mainstream schooling. He was keen to advocate this by making a short video, which might make other children in his situation fight for the right to inclusive education.

Are there any big changes on the horizon?

I am leaving at the end of the year after being here for 15 years, and being director for 10. I am delighted that our Deputy Director, Karabo Ozah, is set to take up my position. She is a dynamic leader with a passion for child law; I have full confidence in her and I am sure that the centre will go from strength to strength under her direction. After a sabbatical, I will remain in the Law Faculty and continue with teaching and research. I aim to strengthen the work under the UNESCO Chair in Education Law, of which I am the incumbent.

Any fun memories that come to mind over the years?

So many! My favourite is when we won the case in the High Court about consensual adolescent sexual activity being decriminalised. Pretoria News put up billboards with the headline: ‘Let kids bonk, judge rules’. We were outraged; it was such an incorrect description of the case. So we complained and the newspaper apologised. But then we saw the funny side of it and had office mugs made with the billboard headline emblazoned on the side!

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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