Shanghai is testing the waters of family law proceedings as it moves to protect the rights and interests of children.
In a recent divorce lawsuit, Shanghai's Putuo District People's Court appointed a social worker to represent the interests of a couple's 3-year-old daughter. The girl suffers from a rare inherited metabolic disease. Her parents had different opinions on her medical treatment, which led to the divorce.
The court said that her rights and interests would be protected best if presented by a neutral third party in legal proceedings, since the need for medical treatment and day-today care will continue long after her parents' divorce.
This is the first case in which Shanghai has introduced a representative for the child in a divorce lawsuit, according to Huang Xiangqing, vice-president of Shanghai High People's Court.
"Legal representation for children in divorce lawsuits is a good exploration for improving the trial system," Huang said at a seminar on Friday. At the seminar, legal experts and a professor discussed the implications of introducing representatives for children in family law proceedings.
The concept is expected to be used in all Shanghai courts.
While legal representation for children is a relatively new concept in China, it has risen to prominence as the country's divorce rate continues to rise, and the status of children after a divorce has become a regular issue.
Nearly 2.1 million couples across the country divorced in 2007, increasing to around 4.2 million by 2016, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The Supreme People's Court website shows that 96 percent of divorce lawsuits from 2014 to 2016 involved questions of custody and child rearing.
Based on current laws, underage children cannot argue for themselves during their parents' divorce proceedings. Though current family law proceedings recognize the principle of maximizing children's rights and interests, children generally remain a silent party and can only passively receive whatever is decided about them.
Shanghai's embrace of legal representation for children in family law proceedings, especially divorces, covers circumstances in which children are deserted or abused, parents abandon responsibility, cases in which property interests might be harmed and other special cases.
In the case of the 3-year-old girl with the rare disease, the district court appointed Pan Xiaojing－a staff member of the district's committee for women's and children's affairs－to represent the girl.
To learn about the girl's condition, Pan visited the family, the parents' employers and the hospital where the girl received treatment. She then represented the girl in court, advocating for her rights in the areas of custody and medical expenses.
The divorce was settled by mediation. One parent agreed to give the girl an allowance of 3,000 yuan (5) per month to hire a caregiver. The other parent agreed to set up a fund of 100,000 yuan for the girl's living and medical expenses. The fund was entrusted to the district's notary office, and its use will be supervised by the girl's representative, Pan.
"In the future, Shanghai courts will maintain close cooperation and communication with related organizations to establish a mechanism to ensure legal representation for children," Huang said.