The bill to make family court proceedings more child friendly has passed its final stage in the Scottish Parliament.
MSPs unanimously approved the Children (Scotland) Bill following the stage 3 debate, in which further amendments to support children in having their voices heard in court and at children's hearings were agreed.
The bill removes a presumption that only children aged 12 and over are mature enough to be heard. It provides that a court should, where practicable, use a child’s preferred method of giving their views, and explain decisions to children in ways they can understand. A child will be presumed to be capable of giving their views unless the contrary is shown.
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. An amendment that would have required welfare reports to be prepared by social workers, thereby excluding legal professionals, was withdrawn.
Local authorities will have a duty to consider how to maintain contact between brothers and sisters should they become looked after outside the family home; and there will be a new participation scheme for siblings affected by children’s hearing proceedings.
A pilot scheme will be set up for mandatory "awareness meetings" to advise people of alternative dispute resolution methods before they litigate; and legal aid funding is to become available for these processes.
Community Safety Minister Ash Denham commented after the vote: "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."
She added: "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."
Mary Glasgow, chief executive of Children 1st, 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 kickstart a much-needed transformation in the treatment of children and families by Scotland’s civil courts.
"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."
Clan Childlaw, which has campaigned in particular for stronger sibling rights, also welcomed the vote. "In passing the Children (Scotland) Bill, the Scottish Parliament has taken a big step forward for children’s rights", it stated. "Provisions include duties on local authorities and children’s hearings which will mean better support for care experienced siblings to maintain their relationships when the state takes one or more of them into care.
"Courts will also be obliged to take into account the effect an order they are considering could have on the child’s important relationships when making decisions such as those about where children should live and what contact they have following the end of their parents’ relationship."
Once it receives Royal Assent, the bill will come into force on a date or dates to be set by order.