The Scottish government plans to streamline the 40-year-old children’s hearing system but there is concern that the changes will be a step too far. Andrew Mickel reports
Scotland’s children’s hearing system has problems. It has been swamped by a doubling of its caseload in the past 10 years to the point where it is now dealing with more than 100,000 referrals a year. Many say it has also become highly bureaucratic and difficult for people to understand and resources to implement panel decisions may fall short.
But despite attempts in recent years to reform hearings, the 40-year-old system remains popular because it focuses on children’s welfare and eschews the adversarial style of youth courts, which remain the dominant model in England. To deal with the problems, the Scottish government wants to streamline the system and has completed a consultation in advance of legislation next year.
The Scottish government is proposing to merge the panels, advisory committees and safeguarder panels, as well as the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration (Scra), into a single body, provisionally called the Scottish Children’s Hearing Agency. It hopes this will reduce bureaucracy.
Maggie Mellon, director of services at Children 1st, accepts the need for change but is unsure whether bringing everything under one structure is the answer.
“The system’s gone too local in some circumstances and doesn’t have the support in place to make it as effective as it could be,” she says. “But the big issue is bringing together decision-making, the panel members and reporters into one body. Lawyers feel that is going to compromise the independence of the tribunal [hearing].”
The consultation did mention separating the different components of the provisional agency with “firewalls”, but failed to include details of how they would work.
Mellon says that the Scottish government needs to publish concrete proposals and assurances on how the firewalls will work because “they haven’t really done enough in the actual consultation to demonstrate that”.
The closest the Scottish government comes to spelling out the separation of the agency’s component parts are the suggestion of separate roles for a principal reporter, a president of the children’s panel, and someone to manage a new single national panel of safeguarders. But these are fraught with possible conflict. For example, the consultation also proposes creating a chief executive officer post to oversee the body’s administrative functions, a move the Scra branch of Unison Scotland says could undermine each division’s independence.
One of the proposals is a division of the reporter role. A reporter can refer a child to a hearing and also provide them with legal advice. But the changes would force reporters to have only one of these roles, with those providing legal advice reporting to the president of the children’s panel rather than the principal reporter.
Conflict of interest
Yvonne Stewart, a reporter who currently chairs the Unison Scra branch, says there are real practical proposals. “We are concerned that this complicates the roles, and creates a real conflict of interest there [between panel members and reporters].”
Billy Nicol, youth justice adviser at crime reduction charity Sacro, says the improvements that are being sought could be acheived with existing policy. He says: “Although we’ve agreed with the principles, Getting It Right for Every Child put a duty on people to share information and promotes multi-agency working, so that’s already happening without trying to pull everyone under one body.”
Although most are sceptical of the benefits of merging all existing bodies, there is support for creating a national body to support panels and ensure their decision-making is well-informed. Also the local link that panels provide will remain – local authorities will be responsible for publicising them, recruiting volunteers to sit on them and for enacting the decisions they make.
But there are areas that were missed from the consultation that many in the sector say are needed to make the system work. They include the provision of advocates, more social work resources and better use of existing alternatives to the hearing system.
While many support the idea of advocates to guide children through the system, the children’s commissioner for Scotland Kathleen Marshall has gone further. She wants a unified approach across all children’s services. “I’ve previously raised concerns that the current system is complex – there’s the legal representative, safeguarders, panel members, social workers and parents who may all claim to have this role,” she says.
More funds will be needed to improve advocacy and other reforms will require more staff. Unison Scotland’s response to the consultation stated that it is difficult for existing panel verdicts to always be implemented because of a lack of social work resources. This is supported by an Audit Scotland report, Dealing with Offending by Young People, that said 400 children didn’t receive the service they needed from the hearing system because of a lack of staff.
So what alternatives are there to the system that are in use? Nicol says charities like Sacro can now take young people who have offended but have no welfare issues, allowing reporters to focus on more acute cases. Similarly, a pilot scheme in Highlands to screen referrals from the police cut their caseload by 70%. But no schemes such as these are mentioned in the consultation as ways of relieving caseloads.
Ruth Stark, British Association of Social Workers professional officer for Scotland, says that the consultation is posing a structural response to a procedural and resource problem. “I don’t know what these improvements are going to achieve,” says Stark. “We’re moving structures to fit an administrative problem rather than what the needs are of the local community. They’re just tinkering at the moment and haven’t got to the root of the issues.”
But despite the concerns about the structural changes in the consultation, there is widespread support for the government’s continued faith in hearings. “I’ve heard it described as a Rolls Royce engine in a tatty chassis,” says Mellon. “It’s much more economical than the juvenile courts with their legal aid costs, and it’s fantastic that it’s based on a strong civic and community responsibility of people volunteering to be on panels. That’s good what we don’t have now are the services.”
What is the children’s hearing system?
The system is designed to help under-16s who have offended or have care or protection needs. Any person can report concerns about the welfare of a child to a reporter, who will then investigate the case. A fifth of those cases are then passed on to one of the 32 children’s panels who preside over hearings, one for each local authority. There are also 30 advisory committees which recommend people for appointment to the panels, while 32 safeguarder panels protect children’s interests.
- More on the hearing system consultation
- Getting It Right for Every Child
- Audit Scotland report Dealing with Offending by Young People
- More on children’s hearings
This article is published in the 27 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “A popular but outdated system”