On December 15, 2022, we filed a petition to the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Welfare, demanding that parents be allowed legal representation in proceedings conducted in committees dealing with the treatment of children at risk ("decision committees"). These committees make critical decisions about the fate of minors, including the authority to remove children from their homes and the custody of their parents, either temporarily or permanently.
Families whose children are discussed in these committees are among the poorest, socially marginalized families in Israel. Often, they include single mothers, some with cognitive, mental, or physical disabilities, and some struggling with addictions. Many of these parents have partial formal education, some do not speak Hebrew, and many are immigrants. These families turn to the welfare system for treatment due to acute life crises, the lack of support systems, and a significant portion of them relies on benefits provided by the welfare system.
Despite the critical, and sometimes irreversible, decisions made in these committees, the Ministry of Welfare prohibits parents from seeking legal representation in the proceedings under all circumstances – even if the parent is hospitalized or detained, if they are minors, have disabilities, do not speak Hebrew, or if the child has already been removed from the home by an emergency order or by force. The absence of representation infringes on their fundamental rights as parents, including the right to a fair trial and the right to family life. The decisions of these committees also have a broad impact on the outcomes of legal proceedings in youth and family courts, making the prohibition on legal representation a severe infringement on access to justice. The prohibition on legal representation is based on an internal directive of the ministry, which contradicts explicit legislation and court rulings on the matter.
In a previous petition filed in 2016, we sought to regulate the actions of these committees in primary legislation, ensuring a fair process and the protection of human rights in their proceedings. Following the petition, the Ministry of Welfare published a new internal directive and a reminder of the law. However, the law was not amended in the four years that have passed since.
Prior to the hearing on December 13, 2023, the Ministry of Welfare announced that it partially accepted the position of the Association for Civil Rights and would allow the presence of legal representatives for parents in the committees. However, it emphasized that the lawyer would attend the committee as an observer only and would not be allowed to speak during the proceedings except "to support the treatment process." During the hearing, ACRI argued for its demand to allow active legal representation that assists parents in expressing their position. The court ordered the state to submit an improved arrangement regarding representation in committees within 60 days.
[Case Reference: HCJ 8647/22, Association for Civil Rights in Israel v. Ministry of Welfare and Social Security, Attorney: Maskit Bendel]