Improvements are needed to ensure that children remain at the heart of the system designed to protect them. This is the conclusion of a report by the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee.
The Children’s Hearing system was first introduced in Scotland in 1971 to safeguard the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children and young people. A number of changes to the system have taken place since then most recently via the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011.
While the Committee welcomed these improvements there is now a danger that some of the current procedures and the way that some Hearings run in practice are making it more difficult for children and young people to be heard.
The Committee has today called for a number of changes to protect this vital system. These include bringing into force the right for all children to have an advocate and ensuring the rules around the number of people attending hearings are more strictly enforced. The Committee also calls for more multi-agency training so that all present (e.g. social workers, teachers, solicitors etc.) understand each other’s role.
James Dornan MSP, Committee Convener said:
“Our Committee met with young people who had been through the children's hearing system. Although we heard of many positive experiences for many there was isolation, confusion and even fear about the process taking place.
“A system intended to put children at its heart must do just that. Provisions aimed at ensuring each young person can have an advocate are a positive step but the fact that this is not yet enacted could mean that some young people still don’t have a voice. This needs resolved as soon as possible. We must work harder to ensure all those taking part in the process understand what is happening and understand that they have a voice and a right to be heard.”
During its short inquiry, the Committee heard that many children did not understand the process taking place and couldn’t understand the large amount of paperwork associated with a Hearing. The Committee recommended that a one page ‘child-friendly’ summary be produced to provide information in an easily understood format.
The Committee also heard about the increasing number of solicitors involved in the hearing system and, on occasion, the more adversarial atmosphere that was being created in a minority of Hearings. The report recommends that stricter training requirements are introduced for those solicitors involved in a Hearing.
A copy of the Committee’s report can be found here.
The Committee heard from a range of witnesses including Barnardo’s Scotland, Children’s Hearings Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland. The Committee also held informal meetings with young people who had experience of the hearings system and with guidance teachers who had supported children and young people at a Hearing.
The Children’s Hearing system in Scotland was established to provide an integrated approach to children who had committed offences and children in need of care and protection. It assumes that the child who has committed an offence is just as much in need of protection as the child who has been offended against. It involves lay tribunals (Hearings) which do not have the formality of the normal courts. At its centre is supposed to be an emphasis on the collaborative, child-centred ethos of the Hearing process.