Suggestions To Improve Meeting Areas Of Guardian Courts In Lahore & Other Districts Of Punjab
Contesting parents have an inherent right to visit their minor child, especially the father who is a natural guardian and a non-custodial parent in the majority of guardian cases. The father is not only required to participate in the upbringing of minors but should also develop love, bonding and affinity towards the minors. To achieve such a purpose, the court should facilitate a congenial, homely and friendly environment and a reasonable visitation schedule. The guardian court for such a purpose is neither conducive nor effective; it lacks proper facilities and cannot be compared to a homely environment. Meeting in court premises does not serve the purpose of the meeting and does not add to the welfare of the minors.
The meeting of minors with parents should preferably be held at the premises of the contesting parent to familiarize the minors with the environment, to keep their relationship strengthened and dispel any fears related to future reunion. It will also ensure that there is no estrangement from the non-custodial family which includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. We must realize that no matter how much the designated meeting areas could be improved, they would still remain part of the court and could never help in developing or maintaining a healthy relationship between the parent and the child.
The guardian court should be chosen as a venue only in extreme or exceptional cases, for which detailed reasoning should be given, thus a mechanical order in such context should be restricted (reliance is placed upon PLD 2008 527 Lahore).
Courts must discourage meetings between minors and parents in these designated meeting areas within the court premises, unless there is a specific need to do so.
These meeting areas should only be used in exceptional cases where there is an evident threat, or history of child abduction or proven child abuse. Other circumstances could include non-custodial parents not being able to arrange a place for visitation.
It is further significant to consider that in case guardian courts start granting more child visitations to non-custodial parents at their homes and for a reasonable time, then the meeting areas in guardian courts will be less crowded than we witness today.
The following suggestions are humbly reiterated here for the upgradation of the meeting areas. The suggestions are divided into two categories: priority-based major considerations and minor considerations.
The following facilities are humbly requested to be provided on a high priority basis in meeting areas under the jurisdiction of the guardian courts:
- Dedicated meeting area outside the court premises in Lahore: The meeting areas are suggested to be outside of court premises where children can enjoy meeting their non-custodial parents in a more friendly atmosphere. It could either be a starred hotel for this purpose, or the compound of Children’s Library Complex Lahore, an institution which tries to create conditions for the intellectual, spiritual and physical development of children. Further the compound of Children’s Library Complex, Lahore would be sufficient for the need of meeting with minors as it provides a better environment as compared to the Guardian Court Lahore where the minors are in a tense atmosphere because of the presence of policemen and other prisoners.
- No entry for custodial parent: The granted visitation is a sole prerogative for the non-custodial parent to meet his or her child after a long awaited time, usually for a mere 2 hours once a month, and the parent wants to make the most of it. It is generally seen that the custodial parents are also present in the same meeting area and forcibly try to stay by the minor’s side, even if from a distance, but still keeping a close watch on the conversation with the non-custodial parent. It is an established fact that the children will not freely interact with the non-custodial parent as long as they are under the observation of the custodial parent. Therefore the custodial parent or their representative must not be allowed inside the meeting area unless the non-custodial parent willingly allows them and wants the custodial parent to join the meeting.
- No entry for personnel in uniforms: The meeting area must be restricted for persons in uniform. The presence of policemen in uniform in such areas should also be discouraged.
- A hall with sitting facilities: The non-custodial parent, usually the father, being a natural guardian should be extended the right to meet minors for a reasonable time at a reasonable place so that the minor could get familiarized with the parent and develop love, bonding and affinity. The meeting areas should comprise of a hall with appropriate sitting facilities, preferably in sets of 4 chairs and a round table.
- Medical emergency facility: There should be a medical emergency facility for not only catering to the meeting area and children but which could also be used for any other emergency in the courts.
- Canteen: The meeting area should have a designated canteen where hygienic food is available. This canteen should be located outside the meeting hall and preferably have a place to sit and eat. It should also have basic necessities like tissues, pampers, baby milk, candies, etc. No outsiders should be allowed to sell unhygienic food or toys of any sort.
- Drinking water: Free source of chilled, clean drinking water should be made available in the meeting area. For this purpose electric coolers with a water filter plant should be installed.
- Trash bins: There should be trash bins installed in various locations in meeting areas.
- Trained security in civil dress: The meeting areas must be vigilantly monitored by trained security staff against any child abuse or abduction attempt. These security guards must be dressed in normal clothes to prevent any trauma or fear from leaving a mark on a child’s innocent mind.
- Trained administration: Meeting areas should have a couple of administrators who should be trained for visitation time management and be able to manage the start and end of the visitation. They should also be trained to handle any conflict between the parents and the children.
- Establishment of meeting areas for other districts of the province of Punjab: It is significant to be noted here that majority of the districts in the province of Punjab lack proper meeting areas within the jurisdiction of guardian courts. It is pertinent to be noted that almost all of the districts of the province of Punjab, including Faisalabad, Sargodha, Gujranwala, Toba Tek Singh, Multan, Vehari, Kasur, Pakpattan, Sahiwal, Gujrat, Jehlum, Attock and many other stations, do not have any area available for the meeting of a child and a non-custodial parent. Majority of visitations here are usually conducted inside the courtroom and under the direct influence of the custodial parents.
If convenient to administer, the following facilities may be allowed in the interest of minors within meeting areas under the jurisdiction of guardian courts:
- UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply): In summers, guardian court meeting areas are often too hot for the children, especially when there is no electricity for hours. So an economical UPS must be installed. A 2KVA UPS, with 2 X 175 AH batteries can provide power to 4 fans for up to 5 hours. The same could be achieved using solar power technology.
- Air-conditioned environment: It is heartbreaking to see that air-conditioners are installed in most of the courtrooms, but there is no air-conditioning facility (not even a room cooler) in the meeting area where it is most required. Proper air-conditioning with fixed doors and door-closers will make the environment comfortable for the meetings.
- Electric room heaters: The hall should be equipped with electric heating to make the meeting area comfortable during winters i.e. December to January. The same purpose could be achieved by installing inverted air-conditioners readily available in the market. This will serve the purpose both in summers and winters.
- Television with child friendly programs: The meeting areas should have television screens installed, showing child-friendly programs. Although children are there to spend time with the parent and not watch television, but this will help in making the overall environment child-friendly and less traumatic.
- Clean toilets with diaper changing facility: Meeting areas must have clean toilet facilities for both men and women, as well as diaper changing facilities.
- Play ground with joyrides: The dedicated meeting location should have a secured green area/ lawn/ ground/ garden equipped with rides and sufficient room for playing. There should also be a secure wall to prevent any threat of child abduction.
- Female caretakers: Trained female staff should be appointed to assist non-custodial parents if required.
- Visitation by superior judiciary: It is strongly recommended that causal visits must be scheduled by the superior judiciary once in a while to administer the provisions of better facilities to children in the meeting areas.
- Dedicated child psychiatrist/ family arbitrator/ councilor: The meeting areas of the guardian/ family courts must also have a child psychiatrist counselor/ specialist/ arbitrator present. When any family litigation case is received, the judge should direct the parties to first have a counseling session. This professional councilor can play a vital role during the entire process of litigation and visitations.
One would like to point out again that a meeting area is not an alternative to the home of a non-custodial parent. A cage made of gold remains a cage.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.