Chance for Scotland’s hearing system to rediscover its founding principles

Tackling the problems of youth crime is high on the agenda north
of the border, with some of the proposed measures in
Scotland’s antisocial behaviour bill targeted at young

This has caused concern that the Scottish executive is keen to
follow the punitive model of youth justice already practised in
England and Wales and that some of the nation’s most deprived
and needy children will be criminalised.

It seems difficult to justify this approach when Scotland
already has the children’s hearing system which is remarkable
in its vision and ability to tackle this very issue.

It is no surprise, then, that a report into a year-long inquiry
into youth justice in Scotland recommends that the executive
“renews” the existing system and provides the resources to move it

The report, Where’s Kilbrandon Now? from
children’s charity NCH Scotland, acknowledges that there are
existing problems with the hearing system and that it has been
seriously undermined by lack of resources and investment. More
crucially, however, the report claims that the hearing system is
being used as a route to services for children who need care and
protection because of lack of resources rather than for children
who offend. The report calls for a return to the system’s
original remit of dealing with youth crime.

The hearing system was established in 1971 as a result of the
Kilbrandon inquiry into youth justice. It recommended that under
16s were removed from adult criminal procedures and all cases
requiring “compulsory measures of care” should be brought before a
lay panel. These measures could address a child’s offending
behaviour or, crucially, provide care and protection. In the early
days, referrals to the hearing system for grounds other than
offending comprised only a few referrals.

From the outset, the hearing system took a holistic,
non-punitive approach to offending and recognised that offending
behaviour and issues of care and protection are often intrinsically

Over the past 30 years the system has developed, progressed and
become embedded in the culture of social care policy in Scotland.
The number of referrals has risen

steadily over the years but, in the past five years, referrals
on grounds of care and protection have risen sharply.

In its annual report published last week, the Scottish
Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) recorded its
busiest year since the hearing system began with nearly 38,000
referrals in 2002-3. It also revealed that nearly two-thirds of
referrals in the past five years are on non-offence grounds.

The SCRA principal reporter, Alan Miller, says: “Despite intense
media attention on youth offending, the majority of cases we see
relate to non-offence referrals. In fact, the number of cases of
alleged lack of parental care has more than doubled in the past
five years.”

The report states there has been a 102 per cent increase in the
number of children referred to the hearing system on non-offence
grounds in the past 10 years. In contrast, referrals made on
offence grounds have risen by just 7 per cent. In the past year,
there has been a slight decrease in number of children referred for

NCH Scotland’s inquiry claims that the reasons for the
increase in referrals to the hearing system on non-offence grounds
are deficiencies in other services designed to meet the needs of
children “in adversity”.

“The hearing system should not be used as a route for services
for children in need,” the report says.

“From being a system for dealing mainly with those who require
compulsory measures of care, the hearing system has become the only
route of access to services for children in need of care and

But gaps in services to Scotland’s children cannot alone
explain the massive increase in the number of non-offending

The SCRA’s report is clear that the record number of
referrals undoubtedly reflects a greater awareness of issues such
as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and the impact of
family breakdown. There has been a 194 per cent increase in
referrals for lack of parental care in the past five years.

The increased number of care and protection referrals to the
hearing system reflects the changing face of Scottish family life –
children in need in the 21st century have very different lives from
their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is possible, therefore, that compulsory measures of care
sought through the hearing system may be the most effective way to
protect vulnerable children. The child care system is undoubtedly
under-resourced and understaffed, but it is a system that has
become increasingly astute at recognising the complex and
distressing nature of children’s needs.

Indeed, anyone with concerns about the welfare of a child can
make a referral to the hearing system – in 2000-1, 84 per cent of
referrals to the system came from the police, with 8 per cent from
education and 6 per cent from social services.

John Stevenson, Unison’s Edinburgh branch secretary, says:
“The police routinely refer children who come to their attention,
and this explains in part why there has been such an increase in
referrals. However, it is appropriate that the decision to
determine who should be made subject to formal compulsory measures
should lie with the hearing system.”

The recruitment and retention crisis of Scotland’s social
workers is, according to the NCH report, one of the key issues that
“lies at the heart of the problems facing the hearing system”.
Vacancies for children and families social work are reportedly as
high as 40 per cent in some authorities, a figure the Scottish
executive denies, claiming it to be nearer 13 per cent across
Scotland. Whatever the figure, the conclusion must be drawn that
lack of social work staff, coupled with the complex problems of
many of the children, may mean that a greater number of referrals
on grounds other than offending are being made to the hearing

To an extent, NCH’s recommendation that the hearing system
return to its original purpose is already taking place.

A fast-track pilot for repeat offenders in three areas of
Scotland is showing that the system can work more effectively to
address behaviour and needs. The fast-track hearing is expected to
be rolled out nationally by 2006. It provides guaranteed delivery,
more resources and tighter standards.

Many believe, though, that this approach should be applied to
all children’s hearings and not just persistent young

Youth justice and the care and protection for Scotland’s
most needy children are the founding principles of the
children’s hearing system. But any debate about preserving
the hearing system as a humane way to deal with youth crime cannot
take place without regard to its combined purpose of care and
protection alongside offending.

A spokesperson from the British Association of Social Workers
Scotland says: “There is a danger in separating out those who
offend and those who have need for care and protection. Children
who offend are also in need of care and protection – they come from
the same population.”

Douglas Bulloch, chairperson of the SCRA, agrees that the
purpose of the children’s hearing system is two- fold. He
adds: “We will continue to contribute to the development of
improved approaches to youth crime and antisocial behaviour. The
role of the children’s hearing system is critical to
completing the network of services that protects children.”

Miller says the hearings system is a sound model, as shown by
the fact that the young offenders’ panels in England and
Wales were largely modelled on it.

“I believe there is increasing recognition in Scotland and
elsewhere that the integrated approach offered by the hearing
system is the right way to address the behaviour and needs of young
people in trouble. The Scottish executive’s upcoming review
on the hearing system will offer a chance to further improve it and
increase its public profile.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.