The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is backing Scottish Government plans to change the law on deciding parent-child contact in family breakdown cases, but is warning that it may make little practical difference to the lives of children unless it is properly resourced.
The Children (Scotland) Bill was introduced by the Scottish Government in order to ensure the voices of all children (in particular those under 12) are heard in family law cases, give further protections to the victims of domestic abuse in such legal disputes, and to change a range of rules around how family breakdowns are handled by authorities, from contact centres to the legal profession.
The Committee supports these aims but has suggested a number of potential areas in which the Bill could be improved to support taking children’s views into account. These would go beyond simply removing from the statute books the current arbitrary presumption that 12 years old is the point at which a child can express their opinion.
Importantly, the infrastructure to take children's views needs to be strengthened. Specific skills and more creative methods are crucial, particularly when dealing with younger children. And if this law is to have a positive impact, then appropriate facilities and practitioners need to be in place across Scotland to ensure that all children who wish to express their views can do so.
Speaking as the Committee’s report was published, Justice Committee Convener, Margaret Mitchell MSP, said:
“The Committee is persuaded that children’s interests are best served when they are afforded the opportunity to make their views and feelings known to authorities deciding upon their future family situation.
While members are backing the Bill at this stage they are acutely aware that the law on paper will not change the reality for children and families unless it is properly resourced, and practices change. At present, the Committee has concerns around the lack of resources accompanying the Bill, and the facilities we currently have in Scotland. Unless these change, the new law may make little practical difference to the lives of families.
“Of course, any implementation of these changes may have to wait until the current response to the Covid-19 outbreak has passed, but we look forward to working with the Government to strengthen the Bill in the months ahead to ensure its laudable aims can be met in reality.”
The Justice Committee’s oral evidence on the Children (Scotland) Bill took place at meetings between December 2019 – February 2020. This Stage One report has been agreed remotely since the current Covid-19 restrictions have been in place.
Links to Committee web pages on scrutiny are here.
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