Changes to Children Amendment Act delayed
The Government was accused of failing to carry out a proper consultation yesterday after a House of Assembly debate on a controversial Bill opposed by children's rights campaigners was postponed.
Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader, said he was “extremely concerned” by the decision.
He added it showed an “alarming” lack of discussion with relevant organisations.
The Children Amendment Act 2018 was expected to be discussed by MPs, but One Bermuda Alliance members were told minutes before the start of the session that the debate would not be held.
However, Mr Cannonier said he was pleased the tabled version of the Bill was held over because he believed not all relevant groups had been fully consulted.
Children's rights campaigners had raised fears that the legislation would erode the right of vulnerable youngsters to independent legal representation in court.
The Bill amended the wording of section 35 of the Children Act and replaced the word “shall” with the word “may” in relation to the requirement for the court to consider the appointment of an independent advocate, a litigation guardian, in cases that involve children.
Mr Cannonier said: “I'm actually glad that we didn't debate it because there are major issues, one of those main concerns is consultation.
“You can't have a large organisation like the Human Rights Commission saying they weren't weighed in on this piece of legislation.
“This is a government that continues to talk about transparency and consultancy yet the relevant organisations haven't been consulted. That's majorly concerning.”
The OBA leader said it was unacceptable that he and his team were told “five minutes before the House opened” that the Bill would not be debated.
Mr Cannonier added: “That would suggest that there's more work to be done.”
Mr Cannonier said: “It speaks volumes to the fact that consultation has not been comprehensive.”
He said: “Come the day for the Bill to be debated, it's put off, so the only factors that I can see in the mix is that consultation had not taken place like it should have and that Government now has no other choice but to put it off while they get it right.”
Mr Cannonier added: “The Sex Offenders Bill is also another example of poor legislation as it fails to take account of the vast majority of recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee formed to investigate this issue.
“These are just two examples of the way this government rushes to tick boxes so it can boast of ‘taking care of the people's business' but the fact of the matter is that they are tabling poorly thought out legislation that is not based on consultation with the people they represent and which, to their huge embarrassment, they have to delay.”
Katie Richards, a family law expert, said earlier that the proposed amendments would “undoubtedly erode the legal rights of children”.
The Human Rights Commission was among groups that brought a lawsuit against the Government over the obligations of courts in respect to litigation guardians last year.
Tawana Tannock, chairwoman of the HRC, said earlier that the organisation was not consulted or given notice that the latest Bill had been drafted and was to be tabled.
Sheelagh Cooper, a child welfare campaigner, said last night: “We could only hope that this may mean that there's a rethink about the change in wording.
“Having looked closely at the original legislation it does occur to me that it wasn't all that necessary to change the word from ‘shall' to ‘may'.”
She said there was already provision in the Act for the court to decide whether or not a litigation guardian was required.
Ms Cooper added the amendment appeared to cover problems over payment for litigation guardians.
She said: “For that I am grateful, certainly I would support that and I do believe that there's an intention there to do the right thing.”
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, said the Government was still committed to a debate on the Bill next year.
She added that the legislation would “fulfil the current Government's pledge to enhance protection of children”.
Ms Simmons said: “This includes providing an improved framework to enhance existing protocols with regard to the appointment, function and payments of litigation guardians.
“All existing ambiguities and inconsistencies in the law on this issue will be reconciled with passage of the Bill.
“Consultation with the judiciary to further their key role in the process has been undertaken.
“The judiciary will continue to be empowered to appoint litigation guardians under their existing powers.
“Additional provisions will ensure that litigation guardians are vetted and are suitable to safeguard the interests of the children they serve.”