In the Best Interests of the Child?

Date: 1st December 2010
Category: Family Environment and Alternative Care, Civil Rights and Freedoms, Disability, Basic Health and Welfare

It's a core principle of the UNCRC. But how do we make sure we're acting in the best interests of the child? Ahead of a keynote seminar 'In the Best Interests of the Child?' being held on 7th of December 2010 in Glasgow, Douglas Hamilton, Head of Save the Children Scotland, looks at some of the issues.

One of the principles underpinning the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is that "in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration" (Article 3).

I'm not sure too many people would disagree with the sentiment behind this article. There is something self evident about a statement that we should always have the best interests of the child at the forefront when making decisions. But when you stop and think about what considering the best interests might entail, the principle throws up questions. Who decides what the best interests are? What criteria are used to determine them? Are there other pressures that affect how you arrive at a child's best interests? Are the short term best interests of a child the same as their long term best interests? When making decisions about a group of children how do you balance something that may be in the best interests of one child but not another?

These are some of the questions addressed in two new papers by Scotland's former Commissioner for Children and Young People Kathleen Marshall and Malcolm Hill, Research Professor at the University of Strathclyde. The papers have been written to stimulate debate and discussion about how the "best interests" principle is being applied in Scotland and what implementation may mean for future policy and practice.

Kathleen Marshall points out that the best interests of the child "is no simple standard. It involves a human judgement informed by the sciences and coloured by culture and belief". When you consider the range of adults who make decisions and the contexts in which decisions are made about best interests, it becomes clear there is a dilemma faced by people such as judges, social workers, doctors and children's panels. The assessment of a child's needs or best interests "can be assessed differently according to your understanding of the nature and the destiny of the child".

This theme is also picked up by Malcolm Hill in his paper looking at how the "best interests" principle is applied to decisions that affect groups of children. When elected representatives at various levels make decisions, they are subject to many pressures and influences. Legal provisions and the views of professionals, academics, parents, public opinion and children themselves all have to be taken into account. Hill notes that "the different sources and ideas about best interests come up with broad conclusions that are very similar" but "these are open to value-based interpretations" and differ at the level of detail.

The papers by Marshall and Hill provide an excellent foundation for exploring these issues further. By widening out the debate on best interests, there is hope that future policy and practice in Scotland can continue to be progressive in realising children's rights for all of Scotland's children.

In the Best Interests of the Child? will pick up on these and other points from the papers prepared by Kathleen Marshall and Malcolm Hill, and will be a timely opportunity to take forward the debate on children's rights. The discussion day is organised in Glasgow by Children in Scotland, with Save the Children and the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships. For more details visit

Links to the papers and to the report of the day will be available in a future edition of the Together Newsletter.