Legislation to put the best interests of children at the heart of cases.
Radical changes to make family court proceedings much more child friendly have been passed into law.
All children’s views will have to be heard and taken into account in family cases, subject to extremely limited exceptions, after the Children Bill was passed by Parliament. It removes a presumption that only children aged 12 and over are mature enough to be heard.
The court should also, where practicable, use a child’s preferred method of giving their views and explain decisions to children in ways they can understand.
Child contact centres will have to meet minimum criteria, such as accommodation and staff training standards, and Child Welfare Reporters must be on a newly established register, before either can be appointed by the court.
The Bill also places a duty on local authorities to consider how to maintain contact between brothers and sisters should they become looked after outside the family home, and introduces a new participation scheme for siblings affected by children’s hearing proceedings.
Community Safety Minister Ash Denham said:
“The first-hand accounts I’ve heard from children of their experiences in the family court process have been deeply touching. This is why the radical changes in this Bill are so important.
“It is vital that in every case the best interests of the child remain paramount. We also need to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to have their views heard.
“This Bill will make sure important decisions are communicated in ways children can understand and bring greater consistency in the way our young people are treated across Scotland.
“Our work on improving the family courts is far from complete. There is much still left to do and we will do that as quickly as we can in the current circumstances.
“I am very grateful to all the stakeholders and individuals especially the children and young people who have taken time to write to me and to participate in discussions on reforming the family courts.”
Mary Glasgow, Chief Executive of Children 1st, Scotland’s national children’s charity, said:
“Today, the Scottish Parliament has made a fundamental commitment to children that their voices will be heard in our justice system. The Children (Scotland) Bill will kick-start a much-needed transformation in the treatment of children and families by Scotland’s civil courts.
“We look forward to working with the Scottish Government, civil courts and our partners, Scottish Women’s Aid, to put it into practice. These significant changes must also mark the start of a broader shift to further advance children’s participation rights in the criminal justice system and the Children’s Hearings.”
The Children (Scotland) Bill will come into force after Royal Assent is given.
The very limited exceptions to the rule that all children are capable of giving their views include where the location of the child is unknown or where the child is not capable of giving their views. However, on the latter the Bill states that a child is presumed to be capable of giving their views unless the contrary is shown.
Child Welfare Reporters can be appointed by the court to provide a report on the best interests of the child or seek the views of the child.
The passing of the Bill is only the start of the work on improving the family court process. Next steps will be implementation of the Bill and also non-legislative work as set out in the Family Justice Modernisation Strategy.