Scotland's system of volunteer panels which make major decisions about the lives of children should be reviewed, according to one of the country's leading social work chiefs.

Alistair Gaw, the president of Social Work Scotland (SWS) and head of Children's services at Edinburgh City Council, said the Children's Hearings system should be revisited with a view to professionalising the quasi-judicial panels.

Children's hearings consist of three trained volunteer members who can make decisions about the lives of troubled or vulnerable children including issues such as where they live, whether they remain in mainstream school and what contact they have with family members. Such decisions are normally taken in discussion with parents, health and social work professionals and others involved including the children themselves.

However Mr Gaw, incoming president of SWS which represents social work leaders, said the increasing legalisation of panels was making it difficult for volunteers to make the best decisions in a child's best interest.

Speaking ahead of SWS annual conference in Crieff this week, he said: "I have huge respect for panel members and the hearing system itself, but we have so much adversarial argument now that there is a question about whether the interests of the child are getting lost."

He compared the children's hearings system with other tribunals operating in Scotland which have as a minimum a trained, paid chair, he said. "We have professional tribunals about issues such as employment, mental health and land and property, but when it comes to the most fundamental questions about the long term life chances of vulnerable children we are not affording them the same level of expertise.

"Successive governments have stuck with the panel of three lay members, while other tribunals in Scotland have a paid professional chair supported by others which leaves them qualified and equipped to deal with the issues that arise."

Mr Gaw was involved in the recent court case which saw two of his social work staff convicted for contempt of court, after disregarding a sheriff's court order relating to contact. The verdict was ultimately overturned at appeal, but the increasing presence of legal representatives is changing the nature of children's panels, Mr Gaw says, making it harder for panel members to receive the information they need and ensure the interests of the child are always paramount in the face of strong claims relating to the rights of parents.

In some cases this is a challenge for those in his own profession to marshall their own arguments better, he said. But social workers are also concerned at some of the decisions that are being taken by children's panels and courts.

In some cases children who have settled and moved on with foster carers having been away from their family for years are having contact with parents imposed on the grounds of their right to a family life, disrupting placements and causing huge damage, Mr Gaw said. In others decisions on adoption or permanence are delayed by legal disputes, leaving children in a damaging state of limbo.

"I hear a lot of concern coming back from people that increasingly, as more and more lawyers have been getting involved in this process and taking quite adversarial lines, the needs of children are sometimes getting lost.

"We can improve the capacity of panel members but there will always be a limit in terms of quality, standards and accountability when you are dealing with a panel of volunteers and we need to ask whether we have got the balance right," he added.

A spokesman for Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS), which was set up in 2013 after a national restructuring exercise, said: "Applicants to the national Children's Panel undergo a robust recruitment and selection process. In addition, they must also complete an extensive 'pre-service' training programme, delivered to a nationally consistent high quality standard and only then do they become fully qualified and are appointed as Children's Panel members.

"Panel members are provided with regular practice information and undertake mandatory training and learning and development sessions throughout the year. Panel members are also observed in hearings as a key part of their practice development and review process.

"This training and personal development equips them with the necessary skills to deal with the complex and often distressing issues which can arise in a children's hearing."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "This is an interesting suggestion, but we have no plans to professionalise the hearings system."

He said the view was that to pay volunteers would be "counter to the ethos and philosophy of Kilbrandon", the report which led to the set-up of the children's hearing system.

"Panel members are volunteers who donate their time and expertise," he added. "Their role within the hearings system is vital and they are recruited from a variety of backgrounds and live or work in the areas in which they volunteer.

"They bring a wealth of life experience to the decision making process with all new members undergoing an extremely rigorous pre-service training programme and an obligation to complete further training during their service. All panel members are fully monitored and supported by the Area Support Teams.

"The Children's Hearing Scotland Act underpinned our support for vulnerable young people, significantly reforming the system, and the creation of Children's Hearings Scotland has meant that volunteers across Scotland have access to the same standards of training."