Scotland’s on the cusp of something very special (Part 1: what the Bill will bring)

Scotland’s on the cusp of something very special (Part 1: what the Bill will bring)

Following the Scottish Parliament’s approval of the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill on Thursday 25, April 2024, CYCJ are releasing a blog mini-series covering various aspects of the Bill and what happens next. In the first of these, CYCJ’s Debbie Nolan reflects on her time as Professional Advisor to the Scottish Government and what changes the new legislation will bring for children and young people in conflict with the law in Scotland.


By Debbie Nolan

The Scottish Parliament took a massive step forward last week towards creating a better care and justice system for children and young people by passing the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill. By recognising all under 18’s as children, ending the use of all Young Offenders Institutions, and providing substantially greater support for all children involved with the law, including victims, this  Bill can deliver momentous change.

Having spent two and a half years with the Scottish Government’s bill team working on this, and from my time at CYCJ and in practice prior to that, I know the Bill will bring the transformative change for all children and young people in conflict with the law in Scotland.

I was fortunate enough to have been seconded from CYCJ to the Scottish Government’s Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill team from late 2021, in the capacity of Professional Adviser. Having almost felt like I ate, slept (or sometimes not slept as a result!), and breathed the Bill for the past two and a half years, it is probably unsurprising that I feel the Bill brings massive opportunities for Scotland’s children and young people.

From the start I was involved right the way through the Bill’s development. I was part of the initial review of the recent national and international evidence, research and recommendations to inform the development of the consultation on policy proposals. I assisted in undertaking the consultation and understanding what the responses told us, and subsequently the Bill’s development in response to this. Collectively an implementation and resource group was convened and I supported the Bill’s progression through the Scottish Parliament, all the while supporting engagement with stakeholders, not least children and young people. This breadth and depth of work has given me a very detailed understanding of the changes the bill would bring.

Key changes

Central to the Bill is the recognition of all children aged under 18 as children across various pieces of childcare and criminal justice legislation, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This will end the two-tier system that currently exists where a child’s ability to access the children’s hearings system or secure accommodation is based not on the child’s needs, but solely their age or legal status. This will mean more children will be able to be supported within these age- and stage appropriate, welfare based systems and settings where this is required.

By raising the age of referral to the Principal Reporter to 18 far fewer 16 and 17 year olds should  go through the criminal justice system, though the Lord Advocate will retain discretion to prosecute children in court where deemed appropriate. For those children who remain, the Bill enables enhanced safeguards to children’s rights, safety and welfare from all stages of proceedings from police custody to the court process and beyond, including maximising the ability of the courts to remit the cases of children who have pled or been found guilty of an offence to the children’s hearings system for advice or disposal.

Also of tremendous importance is ending the use of Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) for children under 18. This is a key part of The Promise and has been committed to be achieved by the end of 2024. During the debate there was powerful cross-party support on the need to end the use of Polmont YOI for children and this fulfils a key part of The Promise by providing secure care accommodation for a child who requires this level of support.

There will be increased support to young people where they have required the protection of a compulsory supervision order or where they have been sentenced or remanded in secure accommodation. Where remanded or sentenced, they will be treated as if they were a looked after child, with accompanying aftercare entitlements should they be a ‘care leaver’, and the requirement for a child to leave secure accommodation when they turn 18 will cease in certain circumstances;

Alongside this comprehensive package of measures to provide children in conflict with the law with the necessary care and support they need to reintegrate and rehabilitate, the Bill also provides significant support to victims. There will be a statutory duty on Scottish Ministers to provide support, via a single Point of Contact for all victims, with enhanced protective and preventative measures being made available through the Children’s Hearings System. Alongside this, there will be greater discretion with the Principal Reporter to share information with a person who has been harmed or in the case of a child their relevant person where a child’s case is referred to the children’s hearings system.

There will be significant work to take these transformative changes forward and no doubt sizeable challenges to overcome. But for now it is important to recognise the tremendous potential this Bill offers to create a much more trauma-informed, rights-based approach for all children and young people and deliver lasting change.



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