After section 17

Part of Family Law (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:22 pm on 15th December 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 3:22 pm, 15th December 2005

Going to court is an indication that there is conflict over or disagreement about contact with children. The parental agreement should provide an important starting point for separating parents. I originally wanted the parental agreement in the bill, but I have accepted ministers' assurances that it is a valid document to present to the courts.

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 requires a court to consider contact and residency in the interests of the child. Indeed, the context of the 1995 act is that there should be joint decision making about children, whether or not they are resident with one parent. More work needs to be done on the 1995 act to ensure that parents understand that we are trying to achieve joint decision making.

When there is conflict, procedures can be protracted. I am familiar with cases in which the court has taken four, five, six or even seven years to reach a decision. There is a special procedure for family contact cases, but they are not always speedily conducted. Glasgow Sheriff Court has two specialist sheriffs, and I believe that they make a difference because they can press individuals when there are difficult issues and emphasise the role of both parents. However, when those cases go to court, they are costly and children are involved. We must impress on people the fact that it is the duty of both parents to consider the interests of their children.

The Executive has not yet acknowledged the extent of the problem, although it has shifted significantly in two important areas—the first is research and the second is access to justice. My amendment 42 requires the Executive to regulate for a shorter, speedier process. At issue is access to civil justice. We have heard in the chamber of cases that have cost ordinary individuals £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 and rising, just to get access to the civil courts in order to see their children.

Although amendment 42 is a probing amendment, I emphasise my concern that we must do better to reduce the cost and length of such cases. My primary concern is about cases in which people argue for contact and the costs continue to rise significantly. In addition, parties who defend a position might claim legal aid, so the cost to the public purse must also be considered.

The debate on the previous group of amendments was about grandparents, who also have to use the 1995 act. They too might have problems with cost in order to get into court to argue their point of view.

The Executive's amendment 15 concerns the enforcement of contact orders. There are many cases in which the court grants an order that is frustrated or refused by the parent who has residency. I make it clear that, although I recognise that both parents must adhere to contact orders and I support action to deal with both parents, I refer to cases in which there is no suggestion of domestic violence. I supported the Executive's strengthening provisions to ensure that sheriffs have regard to both women and children when making such determinations and I do not argue for parents to be jailed or fined. However, the operation of contact orders is a genuine concern and it would be wrong simply to acknowledge and condone that contact orders are not complied with in some cases. Although it is difficult to find a solution—Hugh Henry has always said that—it would be wrong to give the impression that because we cannot find a solution, we therefore condone parents who refuse to abide by contact orders. It is not in the interests of children to do that.

Where do we go from here? I accept that there are flaws in the committee's position, which is now in section 17B of the bill and which does not achieve the desired effect. I support the Executive amendment for those reasons. However, I hope that the Executive will think further about what we do about the difficult cases because we do not know how many there are. I welcome the Executive's commitment to research that matter. We need to make a proportionate response. We need a mechanism that at least attempts to recognise that when the court has made a decision in the interests of the child, as it is required to do, we can do more—in a family-friendly way—to effect that decision.

I move amendment 42.