On 28th May 2020, the Children (Scotland) Bill passed its Stage 1 debate in Holyrood. This follows on from the consultation process that was launched by the Scottish Government back in May 2018.
The Bill principally seeks to make amendments to the current legislation contained in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Part 1 of the 1995 Act governs parental responsibilities and rights relating to children and sets out the provisions with respect
to contact and residence of children. The Scottish Government has acknowledged the concerns expressed with respect to how part 1 of the 1995 Act operates in practice and seeks to address this.
The policy objectives of the Bill are to:
- Ensure the views of the child are heard in contact and residence cases
- Further protect victims of domestic abuse and their children
- Ensure the best interests of the child are at the centre of any contact and residence cases and children’s hearings and
- Ensure further compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
Some of the key changes introduced by the Bill relate to:
- Children’s participation in court and the encouragement of hearing the views of younger children
- The regulation of child welfare reporters and curators ad litem
- The regulation of child contact centres
- Protection of vulnerable witnesses in court cases about children
Children’s participation in court:
One of the aims of the Bill is to improve the experience for children involved in cases in order that their views are heard. One of the amendments introduced by the Bill seeks to remove the current presumption that a child aged 12 or over is viewed as having the level of sufficient age and maturity necessary to form a view. By removing this presumption, this will allow younger children to provide their views where they are capable of forming a view and also wish to express this. This means that children will be able to provide their views on decisions which affect them such as where they should live and arrangements for contact.
With respect to the manner in which the child provides their views, it is suggested that a wide range of options be considered including those more suitable for a younger child such as drawing a picture to reflect their views.
The Bill also makes provision for the Court to explain the decisions made to the child affected. However, the Law Society of Scotland reports that concerns have been raised by the Court of Session judges that there should be no expectation on the judiciary to engage with children in this manner given the volume of orders made on a daily basis. They state that the responsibility of explaining a decision to the child affected should remain with the parents. (https://www.lawscot.org.uk/news-and-events/legal-news/judges-voice-concerns-over-aspects-of-children-bill/)
Go to the Law Scotland website for more information.
Regulation of child welfare reporters and curators ad litem:
Child welfare reporters provide reports to the court on the welfare of the child. Curators ad litem are appointed by the court to represent a child’s interests. The Bill seeks to amend the 1995 legislation to establish registers of child welfare reporters and curators ad litem.
With respect to child welfare reporters, they will require to meet certain standards for membership of the register. With respect to curators ad litem, it is proposed that their appointment is reassessed every 6 months.
Regulation of child contact centres:
Child contact centres are described by the Scottish Government as, ‘venues for conflict free contact between children, parents and other people in the child’s life’.
The Bill seeks to amend the 1995 Act to provide that where contact or handover is court ordered, it is to take place at a regulated centre. Provision is also made with respect to the minimum standards that a contact centre must meet. Staff must undertake necessary training. The court would not be able to order contact to take place at a centre which is not registered.
Protection of vulnerable witnesses:
The Bill also seeks to improve protection for domestic abuse victims and children with use of screens and live video links during Child Welfare Hearings. The Bill also makes provision to prohibit a party from conducting their own case if there is a vulnerable witness.
The above provides a very brief summary of some of the provisions that are being proposed by the Children (Scotland) Bill. The Bill is currently at Stage 2 and more information can be found at https://beta.parliament.scot/bills/children-scotland-bill