Children (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th May 2020.

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Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

The relationship between siblings is very important, and we really want the duties to be implemented in practice. We will continue to work with local authorities in order to understand whether there are any barriers to doing that.

I take Neil Findlay’s point about the inclusion of the word “practicable”. It is included specifically to give local authorities flexibility when required, because—as, I am sure, he will accept—there are a number of instances when such contact would not be practical in order to carry out the relationship. It might be that the sibling has not been in care, and we cannot force someone to have a relationship with someone else if they do not want to have one. That is why the word has been included, and it is intended to be used only in a very limited number of occasions.

I have responded to the recommendations that were made by the Justice Committee in its stage 1 report. The bill is only one part of the work on reforming the family courts. Some work is better done through secondary legislation or guidance, and that is set out in our “Family Justice Modernisation Strategy”, which was published alongside the bill in September last year.

I would like to mention four areas, in particular. The first relates to ensuring that children are able to participate in decisions that affect them. I am aware of concerns among stakeholders that the views of younger children are not being heard in family court cases, and I welcome the recently published research by Dr Fiona Morrison and Professor Kay Tisdall on children’s participation in family actions. The bill removes the legal presumption that a child aged 12 or over is mature enough to give their views in various situations. I believe that the majority of children are able to express their views, but there will be circumstances in which some children—they might be extremely young or have severe learning difficulties—will not be able to form a view. The bill requires options in those exceptional circumstances but, again, we expect those exceptions to be used infrequently.

I appreciate the concerns among stakeholders and members of the Justice Committee that the bill should be strengthened to make it clear that the starting point should be that all children are capable of forming a view. Of course, if a child does not want to give their views, I do not expect them to be made to give them.