Toughen up?

Outdated? Too soft? Over-burdened? Under-resourced? These were some
of the questions NCH Scotland posed in its inquiry into the future
of the children’s hearings system in post-devolution Scotland.

The hearings system, established 30 years ago in the wake of the
Kilbrandon report into young offenders, reflected a forward-looking
and confident Scottish judiciary and broader “establishment”
willing and able to take a radical approach to “delinquent”
children and young people.

The system takes decision-making about children out of the courts
and into the hands of a lay volunteer panel. Only questions of
fact, if disputed, are settled in court. The hearings provide a
focus for a multi-disciplinary approach to children’s needs and are
much admired internationally.

However, since devolution the hearings have come in for critical
attention. How we deal with young people in trouble is once again
back on the agenda and some change seems inevitable. But this is
not the 1970s and the political mood seems punitive.

Our concern, and that of many children’s agencies, is that the
Scottish parliament should not throw the baby – or indeed any
children and young people – out with the bathwater.

Is it the system itself that is wrong or the way we run and
resource it? That is one of the key questions we wanted to address
with our inquiry. One of the problems we recognised was that the
hearings have been wrapped in cotton wool. The protective instincts
of the various keepers of the system during its existence have
indeed preserved the system but at a cost.

There was little evaluation of what, how and why decisions were
made at hearings. Did children and young people and their families
feel consulted? Was there clarity about rights and
responsibilities? What happens to children taken away from home on
residential supervision orders? Is secure care necessary for all
the children authorised for this extreme measure? Why do so many
young men go straight from the hearing system to the adult courts
and often straight to jail aged only 16 or 17?

An independent panel has been appointed to review the evidence and
to report on the best way forward for the hearings and the youth
justice system. It is chaired by Richard Holloway, the former
bishop of Edinburgh, and includes broadcaster and journalist Ruth
Wishart, historian Tom Devine and Kaliani Lyle, chief executive of
Citizens Advice Scotland. Their collective authority will lend
substantial great weight to their final recommendations.

The panel heard from an informed array of witnesses during a
day-long session of public evidence in September. Fred Stone, an
original member of the Kilbrandon Committee, gave an insight into
its deliberations and its vision of a vibrant and responsive
system. Other professional speakers included Liverpool University’s
Barry Goldson, who spoke of the 100 per cent rise over the past 10
years of under 18 year olds in custody in England and the 800 per
cent increase in imprisonment of 12 to 14 year olds.

Dr Ido Wiejers of Utrecht University in the Netherlands outlined
the reasons for dealing with adolescent offenders in separate
systems and in different ways from adult offenders. He discussed
the importance of engaging even the most hard to reach families in
the process.

Other witnesses included David Strang, for Scotland’s Association
of Chief Police Officers, who spoke of police support for the
hearings’ work and of their concern that this failed with a small
minority of young people whose offending went unchecked. John
Scott, a solicitor advocate in the criminal courts, said if someone
had to create a system that would perpetuate offending and
antisocial attitudes in young people they could not have done
better than invent the current court system.

Some of the most moving and interesting contributions came from
young people from Ayr, Greenock, Glasgow, Renfrewshire and
Stirling. Some felt panel members were remote, others praised a
system that had given them a chance other young people should have
too. Many complained hearings were not firm enough with them. One
young man described going through years of attending hearings for
offending, “nothing happening”, then being dumped suddenly in an
adult court at age 16 and sent to jail.

Our panel meets again soon to review the transcripts and prepare
its report. The first minister has admitted he is impatient for
change but open to ideas. We hope the recommendations of the panel
will make sure that any change is solely change for the better.

Maggie Mellon is head of public policy at NCH

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