All children should be able to see their brothers and sisters— to have sibling contact. But in Scotland this often doesn’t happen when children are in care or in adoptive or permanent fostering.

At the moment the Scottish Parliament is considering the Children (Scotland) Bill, which will make it clear in domestic law that children who are looked after have the right to maintain contact with their siblings and place a duty on councils to support them to do so. But sibling contact is already a right implied by laws that extend beyond Scotland.

What are a child’s rights to sibling contact in the UNCRC?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) makes it very clear that the state should make sure that – as far as possible – children can grow up in a family environment.

Sometimes this can’t happen, however. When a child can’t live with their family, their right to family life should still be respected, as should the relationships that are important to them.

Articles of the UNCRC that highlight this include:

  • Article 3, which says that courts should prioritise children’s best interests when making decisions about them.
  • Article 8, which says that states should respect the right of a child to preserve certain aspects of their identity, including their family relations.
  • Article 16, which says that no child should be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their family.

What are a child’s rights to sibling contact in the European Convention on Human Rights?

Currently, the UNCRC hasn’t been incorporated into Scots law. That means if a person or organisation doesn’t follow it in Scotland, they can’t be challenged in a court.

But there are other human rights instruments that have legal force in our country, and the concept of respect for family life – and the rights associated with this – appears in these as well.

Particularly important is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which has legal force in the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe.

Article 8 of the ECHR sets out the right to respect for family life, and it’s incorporated into law across the whole UK through the Human Rights Act. It applies to everyone in the UK, including children and young people.

There’s no standard definition of what a family is under international human rights law, but  the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed family life can exist between siblings.

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Families are important, especially relationships with your brothers and sisters— your siblings. We know these relationships are important for mental health and a sense of identity, so you should be able to contact your brother or sister unless for some reason it’s not in your best interests.

Your rights

Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which is about the child’s right to a family life, also talks about the importance of a child’s right to an identity. It recognises the importance of siblings, grandparents and other relatives to a child’s sense of identity.

The  United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (II B (17) also says that every effort should be made to enable siblings to maintain contact with each other, unless this is against their wishes or interests. 

And the European Court of Human Rights of Human Rights has confirmed family life can exist between siblings—reinforcing your European Convention on Human Rights right to family life.

What you can do

If you’ve been separated from your siblings because you are in care, you can tell your Children’s Hearing that you want to have contact with your sister.

Contact is something a Children’s Hearing must consider when they are making decisions, including trying to keep siblings together or at least have contact with each other.

You might find it helpful if you’re speaking to social workers or Children’s Panel members to have an advocacy worker to support you in getting your views across. You can find information about advocacy for looked after children on the Who Cares? Scotland website.

A group called Stand up for Siblings is supporting calls for a change in the law to protect relationships between brothers and sisters in the new Children (Scotland) Bill. You can find information specifically for children and young people on their website.

Local authorities should also consider your need for contact with your family – including siblings – as part of assessment and care planning. If they don’t do this, you can make a formal complaint about social work. You can find out how to do this on your council website by searching under the word ‘complaints’.

If you are not happy with the response to your complaint, you can ask the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to review it.

Using the law

Although the UNCRC recognises the right to family life as including sibling relationships, Scots law does not make it easy for siblings to obtain orders enabling contact.

If you would like to have legal advice, the Scottish Child Law Centre and Clan Childlaw can give you this for free.

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If you are a child or a young person and would like advice and information from the Commissioner’s office – or to tell us something you’re worried about – you can contact Linda, Nick or Maria by:

  • using the form at the bottom of our website
  • emailing us at inbox@cypcs.org.uk
  • texting 0770 233 5720 (Texts will be charged at your standard network rate)
  • calling our children and young people’s freephone on 0800 019 1179.

We can also give advice and information about children’s rights issues to adults—please contact us on inbox@cypcs.org.uk or through using our contact form.

Families aren’t just about parents

If we ask children and young people about their families, they won’t just speak about their parents. Instead, they’ll talk about their brothers and sisters as well— and maybe their aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

But there’s a special bond between siblings. Relationships between them are important and lifelong, and they can be vital for promoting good mental health and for a person’s sense of identity well into adulthood.

The law – like many adults – makes distinctions between full siblings, half siblings and step siblings or other children who live in their home, but many children don’t see any difference: they are all just their brothers and sisters. 

We know from research that failure to support contact with siblings means there’s less chance of achieving a safe, stable and permanent home for that child.

Guidelines on sibling contact for children in alternative care

The United Nations has issued Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

These state that siblings that have existing bonds shouldn’t be separated when in alternative care unless:

  • there’s a clear risk of abuse, or
  • there’s another justification for separation that’s in the best interests of the child.

In cases where siblings can’t have contact, they should have as much information as possible about the reasons for this. They should also have as much information as possible about where their siblings are.