Through their neglect of supervision orders, local authorities
may pose the biggest threat to Scotland’s much admired youth
justice system. Louise Tickle reports.
When the Scottish executive proposed to introduce electronic
tagging and antisocial behaviour orders for young people who had
offended or were acting disruptively, many professionals expressed
deep concern. In light of the ensuing controversy, and as the pilot
areas for electronic tagging were rolled out, the executive’s
announcement that it was going to review the entire youth justice
system gave rise to feelings of unease.
Scotland’s approach to youth justice is widely admired as
enlightened and effective. For 33 years, its community-based
children’s hearing system has been responsible for dealing with
child offending, misbehaviour and protection issues in most cases
without recourse to the courts.
Custody is rarely used. Instead, it is at the absolute discretion
of an independent assessor, called the children’s reporter, as to
whether a child is brought before a hearing.
A hearing consists of a panel of lay people who may make a
compulsory supervision order on a child. The order is also binding
on statutory services, which must then offer support to the child
and his or her family.
Now that phase one of the executive’s review consultation is
completed, youth justice professionals are expressing relief that
their recommendations will help shape the future children’s hearing
With overwhelming support in the sector for the child-centred
approach leading up to a formal hearing, the central concern now
rests on whether supervisory measures ordered to help children are
being adequately fulfilled by statutory services.
Tam Baillie, assistant policy director at Barnardo’s Scotland,
says: “The hearing system is about whether state intervention is
needed. It is pointless having young people in supervision if
they’re not going to get that care after the hearing makes its
order, and that comes down to resources.
“We are sympathetic to the difficulties that local authorities have
in servicing supervision orders, but they need to look at how best
to integrate the resources they do have. For example, it tends to
be seen as a social work responsibility, but there’s also a
responsibility on education services.”
Who Cares? Scotland director Deirdre Watson says: “Young people
have said to us that, by the time anyone came to help, the crisis
had passed. What’s clear is that the resources haven’t been there
to enable the system to meet all its promise, and that is a huge
pity. Help has to be offered in a time frame that is meaningful to
a child if it is to make a difference.”
Alan Miller, principal reporter at the Scottish Children’s
Reporters Administration, says developing a mission statement for
the children’s hearing system may help to direct the role of
“We need to be clearer about outcomes and standards,” he says.
“Since the system’s inception in 1971, the nearest we have had to a
statutory description of outcome is ‘the best interest of the
child’. In England and Wales, through the youth justice system, the
statutory definition of purpose is ‘to prevent offending by young
people’. This has had a galvanising effect, with everyone talking
about how helpful it has been to have that clarity.”
Miller believes that the statutory sector should be ensuring the
right services are provided to high-risk children, no matter the
type of risk. The hearing system deals with children who have been
offended against, as well as those who have offended.
In light of this, any failure to service supervision orders has
implications for local authority accountability in terms of child
protection and in building public confidence in the system as an
effective, non-custodial approach.
Criticism of the children’s hearing system as a soft option can
only gain support when there are repeated reports that supervision
orders are not being carried out by overstretched social services
departments, says Barnardo’s Scotland.
And John Anderson, chair of Edinburgh Children’s Panel, is equally
clear that action needs to follow a supervision order swiftly if
volunteer panel members are to retain public confidence.
“There is a public interest here,” he says. “People need to know
that if there is antisocial behaviour the child is brought to book.
The panels take the flack when things don’t work well. We cannot
force local authorities to service a supervision order, and
sometimes it can seem like local authorities are treating it as
only an option.”
Anderson is also worried about the retention of panel members, and
wants the second phase of the Scottish executive’s youth justice
review to look at how best to support them, including consideration
of payment for their time and services in line with most statutory
tribunals in the UK.
Improving children’s own confidence in a system that is supposed to
listen to their opinions is also an area that needs strengthening,
says Miller. “We rightly pride ourselves on direct communication in
children’s hearings, Experience shows, though, how hard it is for
children and young people to play a full part in that dialogue. We
need to look at how to prepare them better for it and how to be
more active in it so they are better able to speak for
If the children’s hearing system is to justify itself in the
future, not only on the basis of its compassionate approach but
also on its results, then those results will need to be measured,
“There hasn’t yet been a systematic evaluation of the impact of the
system on children’s lives,” he says. “It has to be able to justify
itself in terms of its impact on children’s lives.”
Scottish model :
- Up to age 16 (or 18 if already under supervision), children
with problems are referred to an independent children’s reporter
- It is at the reporter’s discretion whether a hearing is
convened. Only the most serious cases will go to the criminal court
- Parents and children have the right to attend and speak at the
- The panel that decides what measures are needed is made up of
trained community volunteers. The hearing is held in
- If guidance, care or control are needed, the panel will make a
supervision order. Statutory services must support the child and
their family as specified.
- The panels, not the courts, impose Asbos on children.
Electronic tagging is available in pilot areas solely through the
children’s hearing system.
- A review of the supervision order takes place within 12
- The number of under-18s in custody (both on remand and
sentenced) in 2003 was 476.
English and welsh model
- Aims to prevent offending by young people up to age 17.
- Initial offences and antisocial behaviour can be dealt with
outside the courts.
- After further offences or a single, more serious offence, the
court system is used. Cases are tried in public.
- Conditional bail, including tagging, can be imposed, or a young
person remanded into custody. Only exceptionally should this be to
a young offender institution; typically, remand should be to a
local authority secure children’s home or a secure training
- Young people committing the most serious offences are detained
in secure units. For less serious offences, a non-custodial
sentence can be imposed.
- The number of under-18s in custody (both on remand and
sentenced) at the end of July 2004 was 2,766.