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Children's needs must be at the heart of family courts

Divorce is traumatic for everyone involved, and with more than 9000 married couples separating each year in Scotland, there is plenty of scope for heartache.

Few would dispute that, when children are involved, everything possible must be done to minimise any pain and anxiety they endure.

Yet while most loving parents will do everything they can to try and ensure the best outcome for children in their reconfigured families, some youngsters suffer as a result of acrimonious or poorly-managed divorce proceedings, or from unsuitable post-divorce agreements.

As we report today, Scotland's court system is failing to ensure that the interests of these vulnerable youngsters are prioritised. In some cases, legal practitioners are failing to take appropriate heed of their needs, or even to ask them their views. Shockingly, it appears that there have been occasions where children have been forced to live with abusive parents.

A Scottish Government working party is currently considering how to improve standards of court reports in family cases, and legal expert Dr Kirsteen Mackay is calling for children's needs to be at the forefront of the group's work, and indeed, at the heart of all family court proceedings.

We wholeheartedly agree. Mackay makes a list of recommendations, including clear guidelines for the conduct of Children's Reporters' investigations, specialist training for court practitioners on the impact of domestic abuse on children, and lessons on how to speak to children. She also wants the working party to consider the use of accredited professionals who are specialists in communicating with children. As she says: "Only the most confident child is likely to blurt out what they want to say to someone who is essentially a stranger".

As Mackay points out, the child's needs must come first – and the Scottish Government needs to make sure that our court system is designed with this in mind.

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