Scotland Poised to Deliver Maximal Protection of Children’s Rights
This post is 1 of 2 by Dr Kasey McCall-Smith examining the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. The first highlights some of the key features of the Bill that will push for a better future for the children of Scotland. Dr McCall-Smith serves on the Expert Advisory Group on UNCRC Incorporation convened by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights (Together). @KMSonIntlLaw
Key Features of the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill
After a decade of advocating for incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in Scotland, there is much to celebrate following Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill (‘Incorporation Bill’ or ‘Bill’) in Scottish Parliament on 1 September 2020. The Bill proposes direct, maximalist incorporation through transposition of the UNCRC to the extent possible under Scotland’s current devolution settlement. It makes good on the 2019 pledge by the First Minister to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law before the 2021 elections. The Bill signals a massive forward step by Scotland to deliver UNCRC Article 4, which requires States Parties to ‘undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation’ of the UNCRC. If the Bill passes through Scottish Parliament relatively unchanged, Scotland will become the leader among the devolved nations of the UK in terms of children’s rights protections and also provide a strong signal to the rest of the world about its commitment to promote and protect children’s rights. This post examines some key features of the Incorporation Bill while the next post highlights where further improvements would be welcomed.
The ‘Maximalist’ Approach
For those who have worked many years to realise the potential of the UNCRC to stimulate law and culture change in Scotland, the Incorporation Bill delivers and remains true to the Government’s commitment to take a ‘maximalist’ approach. The Bill directly incorporates the UNCRC by reference and in Schedule 1 lists the relevant articles with some notable redactions from the original treaty text seen necessary to accommodate devolved competences. Not only does it directly transpose the bulk of the UNCRC articles, it further includes two of the optional protocols to the Convention (Optional Protocols on Children in Armed Conflict and on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography), it keeps open the possibility to easily add further articles of the Convention and protocols in the event of further devolution or ratification by the UK of the Third Optional Protocol on an individual communications procedure (s5).
Clarifying who is a child
Of the almost 5.5 million people in Scotland, just over 1 million meet the UNCRC Article 1 definition of a child as individuals aged 0 to 17 according to the Mid-2019 Population Estimates. Scotland has long struggled to maintain a clear definition of who is ‘a child’ qualifying for enhanced legal consideration in terms of both participation rights and protection due to its mixed approach of referring to ‘children’ as those under 16 and 16-17 year-olds as ‘young people’ depending on the subject-matter of a particular law. The Incorporation Bill adopts the UNCRC definition and confirms that all under-18s will have recourse to the UNCRC as incorporated. The Bill therefore excludes any room for modifying the definition under other Scots laws.
Respect and Protect
The UNCRC Incorporation Bill introduces a more comprehensive range of duties with which the variable arms of the Scottish Government will be required to comply. Firstly, the Bill requires all public authorities – including Scottish Ministers, courts, local authorities, health authorities, Children’s Hearings panels, etc (see s16) – to act compatibly with the UNCRC (s6). Secondly, section 11 of the Bill requires Scottish Ministers to develop, publish and review a ‘Children’s Rights Scheme’ detailing the arrangements they are putting in place to ensure they comply with their duties under section 6. The Bill further subsumes the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 duty on Scottish public authorities to publish reports on how they are ensuring compliance with the UNCRC. The change of language from ‘respecting’ under the 2014 Act to ‘ensuring’ is significant and should guarantee greater attention to implementation than ever before.
Under section 7 of the Incorporation Bill failure of a public authority to act or acting incompatibly with the UNCRC will give rise to a legal claim and enable the UNCRC to be raised in any legal proceeding (s7). Legalising the justiciability of children’s rights under the UNCRC is arguably the crowning achievement of the Bill. However, justiciability will only matter if the rights are promoted and reinforced through education, resources and culture change. Simplifying the understanding of the role of the UNCRC in law and how to access these rights will be essential to ensuring access to justice.
Following incorporation, all under-18s will be able to raise claims alleging that a public authority has contravened the incorporated UNCRC articles (s7) and all legislation raised before the courts will require interpretation in line with the treaty. This significant change in the protection of children’s rights will guard against the inconsistent interpretive references to the UNCRC that currently permeate Scottish jurisprudence.
As introduced, not only will Scottish courts have an obligation to determine breaches of the UNCRC, under section 20 courts may make a ‘strike down declarator’ against laws predating the commencement of the act. This will aid in rectifying existing laws that directly or indirectly run contrary to the UNCRC. Additionally, section 21 enables courts to deliver a ‘declarator of incompatibility’ for proposed legislation, thus protecting children’s rights before a conflicting law is adopted. If the Incorporation Bill passes through Scottish Parliament with these judicial capacities intact it will represent a new era in the protection and fulfilment of children’s rights in Scotland, with enforcement potential unparalleled in the rest of the UK.
An Unprecedented Opportunity for Scotland’s Children
The proposed UNCRC Incorporation Bill is poised to reshape the way in which government actors and courts use the UNCRC as a tool to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights in Scotland. The only way for the Bill to deliver comprehensive, enforceable rights protections for children is through a multi-layered implementation approach with a long-term vision. When passed, the final Bill will set in motion further audits of existing law and the development of comprehensive policy guidance. Incorporation will not magically deliver the tripartite respect, protect and fulfil approach to children’s rights overnight, however, incorporation of the UNCRC can, and eventually will, be the touchstone for securing a better life for children in Scotland.
To read the second post on the Bill, click here.