Even though the roles of independent advocates and solicitors are incredibly distinct and different – there is often confusion about where one role stops and the other starts.

Being clear on the roles, responsibilities and expectations of both is key to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people. Clarity helps vulnerable children and young people as well as the legal profession to know what they can and can’t expect of an advocate.

Independent advocates are often called upon when children are subject to a child protection plan.  A young person may want support from an advocate to express their wishes and feelings or just to feel more involved in meetings that relate to their care.  Typically, this role is funded by the local authority who is the corporate parent for the young person. A young person in care who already has legal representation might also enlist the support of an advocate if they are raising a complaint against the local authority.

Advocates are also called upon to help care leavers and care experienced mothers, typically to provide extra support and a voice whilst they go through a period of transition or care proceedings with their solicitor.  Finally, children and young people in-patients in mental health (MH) settings who have been detained under the Mental Health Act are often appointed a dedicated Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA) for additional support.

Here are the three key areas where independent advocates help children and young people:

  1. Giving them a voice

An advocate helps young people to articulate what they want to say or be shared on their behalf.  Advocacy ensures that a young person feels listened to and respected in meetings about them, even if what they want to happen is unlikely to be agreed.

Advocates do not offer legal advice as to whether what the young person wants will be given to them or agreed by the court or local authority.  Advocates have a duty of care to the child or young person they support – they are not there to influence their views or wishes or to work on behalf of the solicitor.  They are purely centred on the child or young person.

  1. Gathering information

An advocate helps a child or young person to gather facts and information to help their decision making or expression of wishes and feelings. This may include supporting them in discussions with their social workers, carers, extended family or school.

  1. Explaining a process

Discussions around care proceedings, care plans and future arrangements can be complicated.  Advocates work closely with children and young people to help explain what is happening around them.  This might involve explaining a process, setting timescales or explaining who’s who and the duties of the different professionals involved in their lives.

Unfortunately, there is considerable disparity between the provision of independent advocacy services in England and Wales (something that we have already blogged about) and many young people still don’t know what advocacy is or how to access it.   For a charity like NYAS whose work is entirely focused on protecting the rights of children as set out in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, advocacy is a highly important and hugely effective tool in the fight to change vulnerable young lives for the better.

NYAS offers individual advocacy and a range of information, advice and support through a network of 350 independent advocates across England and Wales.   To find out more or make a referral visit: www.nyas.net/services/advocacy/