Children Bill Stage 1 report – still a lot to play for

The Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament have been working hard in getting to grips with the Children (Scotland) Bill since it was handed over to them last year.

Following a call for evidence, commissioning of research and seven evidence sessions between December 2019 and February 2020, the committee published a very comprehensive 100-page  Stage 1 Report on May Day 2020.

While they have agreed that the legislation can go forward, the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government should do a lot more work in reconsidering some of the proposals, justifying others and extending the legislation in areas such as the statutory check list.

Shared Parenting Scotland congratulates the Committee on a very comprehensive report that has been produced to deadline despite the lockdown.  We are disappointed that some of our proposals have been rejected, such as explicit mention of the benefits of shared parenting and the failure to consider using the term “parental alienation”.

But our overall response is to welcome many of the recommendations that the Committee has made.  A lot of key issues have been sent back to the Scottish Government for reconsideration, and key messages have also been sent to the Judiciary, the legal profession, Scottish Legal Aid |Board and the Scottish Civil Justice Council concerning areas that they have to consider, such as the training of sheriffs and judges and the need for a specialist family court that makes decisions faster, the role of lawyers in producing child welfare reports, the need for far more alternative dispute resolution and many other issues.

We particularly welcome the call for more statistics on what is actually happening in the family courts and research on what can be done to support parents and children through family breakup.

Among the committee’s recommendations are:

  • a stronger signal in the bill that the views of children under 12 should be heard wherever possible;
  • clarity that no child should feel under pressure to express a view;
  • detailed proposals from the Government, before stage 3, on how it will ensure that the necessary infrastructure and resources are in place to support children, including very young children, to give their views;
  • a commitment to ensuring that children’s advocacy is available to all children involved in cases under s 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995;
  • work with stakeholders including children’s organisations, the legal profession and the judiciary to develop guidance for decision-makers on options for taking children’s views;
  • clarity from the Government, before stage 2, as to how it will address the practical issues raised, particularly by the judiciary, around the proposed duty to explain most decisions to children;
  • expansion of the list of factors for the courts to consider, to include those suggested by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child;
  • further consideration of whether the bill should be amended to reflect the definition of domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which includes coercive control;
  • while agreeing that there should be no presumption in favour of shared parenting, and no right or presumption in favour of contact between grandchildren and grandparents, as these would cut across the welfare principle, the Government should provide further details on the steps it intends to take to promote the Charter for Grandchildren;
  • exploration of whether responsibility for managing lists of child welfare reporters and curators could be retained at a local level, alongside national standards on training and qualifications.