Senior members of Scotland’s Children’s Hearing System say they have been subjected to an arbitrary and unfair complaints process, leaving many feeling victimised and undermined.

Scotland’s unique system of youth justice has been accused of itself failing to treat volunteer panel members in a way which is fair or just.

The concerns relate to the organisation’s complaints process, which several highly experienced panel volunteers say is not fit for purpose.

The Children’s Hearing System (CHS) is designed to focus on the ‘needs not deeds’ of young people in trouble or in need of care, and is supposed to ensure all decisions are taken in the best interests of the child.

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It relies entirely on the unpaid support of volunteer panel members who give up their time to gain the expertise to manage often difficult and emotional situations and make decisions legally and fairly.

But the organisation’s own complaints system is accused of being neither fair nor transparent.

Following a series of unconnected complaints against panel members, senior figures within the volunteer panel member community in Glasgow have blasted Children’s Hearings Scotland, which manages recruitment and training of the lay members of the public to sit on panels.

A number of senior volunteer panel members, with decades of experience in the system have outlined a series of concerns about the way they and colleagues have been treated when this happens. They allege:

· panel members have been denied knowledge of the allegations or any evidence against them

· Investigations into any complaints are partial or one-sided

· Decisions are made to sack or suspend panel members before they are given a chance to put their side, and once taken they have no recourse to appeal

· This means they have no choice but to accept the decision or be removed form duties as a panel member

· This is causing the unnecessary loss of skill and experienced panel members who resign from the system and distress and disillusionment among those who remain.

Helen Cadden has been a panel member for 19 years and for 17 years has helped train new panel members in return only for expenses. She was accused in January 2019 of mismanaging a hearing.

A vastly experienced chair, she had received nothing but positive feedback on her skills as a panel member until a hearing in December 2018.

But after a couple whose child had been placed in foster care made offensive comments about the gay foster couple before the start and at the end of the hearing, Ms Cadden was accused of allowing "serious and sustained homophobic abuse throughout the hearing".

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She maintains this is untrue and she could have done nothing to prevent the behaviour as it was not during the hearing itself.

However, she says the first she knew of the complaint was when she was phoned 10 weeks after the hearing and asked for her version of what happened.

She was not told what the complaint was until she received a letter saying it had been upheld. Asked what kind of investigation had taken place, she was told all parties had been interviewed. It later emerged that only she had been spoken to.

She was suspended from sitting on hearings and training and is still trying to have the decision overturned.

While she has been told she can return to sitting on hearings, this is only if she agrees to accept the initial decision and undertakes retraining in conflict management and assertiveness.

Pauline Casey resigned after eight years as a panel member after a complaint against her was upheld despite the panel chair, 16 panel members and the Children’s Reporter (a legally trained professional who sits in on all hearings) backing her against her complainer.

A review of her performance as a panel member was also positive, but Ms Casey later learned that a secret second report had been written, which she was not allowed to see.

When she sought information held about her using a subject access request, CHS sent it back heavily redacted.

“I asked ‘what is the evidence against me, can I see it?’ ," said Ms Casey. "I was told ‘that’s not process’. I asked, ‘how do I appeal against this?’ And I was told ‘that’s not process’.”

Another long-standing panel member Mike Brady said he faced similar problems when a complaint against him was raised, though it was not upheld.

He said he was not told the nature of the complaint against him, the language used was misleading, he was called up without warning to explain his recollection of the situation, and the complaint was misleadingly presented.

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Mr Brady said: “It still affected me and I have seen the impact on others of this process. It has an impact on their health and emotional wellbeing.”

Tommy Love also ran the rota for the north of the city as a respected member of the area support team. He was subjected to the complaints procedure after he admits he was unnecessarily rude to a panel member who had called off at short notice.

“I accepted I was rude. But after a phone call out of the blue about it, I was told the complaint had been substantiated.

"I requested a meeting to discuss it and was allowed to have a representative with me from the area team. But he left the room twice with the person who was investigating me.”

Mr Love was ordered to write emails with a "lighter tone" and show them to a supervisor before sending them.

Callum Black, who has also served for many years as a panel member, taking on additional roles in the area support team, was sanctioned after he volunteered to help at a new panel members’ day. He was told he had given participants false information.

He said: “I was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow City Chambers. I was told ‘there have been three complaints - we can’t tell you the details’.

"I didn’t want to attend without knowing what the meeting was about but they said what I had said about legal accountability was factually wrong.

"You can’t contest it - I couldn’t ask questions and I couldn’t challenge anything. It flies in the face of fairness."

Panel member, Robert Wilmot, says more oversight is needed otherwise good volunteers will be driven from the system. “People feel tormented, pulled apart,” he said.

In September 2018, the CHS chief executive told the board there had been an escalation in complaints and concerns and a review of the process would be carried out.

A revised complaints procedure has now been published, but panel members say it fails to answer many of their concerns.

In particular it explicitly says panel members will not be told the details of complaints against them and makes it clear there is no automatic right of appeal.

Panel members have raised concerns that it breaches Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a fair trial in disciplinary cases.

Maree Todd, the minister for children, has been informed about the concerns regarding the CHS complaints process, and it is expected to be raised today at First Minister's Questions.

Rhona Smith, professor of international human rights and head of Newcastle Law School at Newcastle University, said the way CHS handles complaints about volunteers is “problematic”.

“Technically speaking, volunteers are not subject to normal employment law, but basic elements of the process should still be compliant with human rights standards," she said.

“The person should be informed what the complaint is, and given the opportunity to respond to that during the investigation process, and have their response taken into account in a meaningful way before a determination is made."

She added: "The way it operates now is, in my opinion, unacceptable."

Mr Elliott, the CEO and national convener for CHS, stressed that there had been 41 complaints against panel members 2018/19, in a year when 31,653 hearing took place.

He added that CHS "value feedback from our volunteers" and have "enhanced our complaints policy and procedure" to include the right to an internal review.

He added: “We investigate all complaints thoroughly using a fair and robust procedure which always allows exploration of the complaint with both the subject, and those who have made the complaint.

“No volunteer has been removed as a consequence of a complaint. In some cases, volunteers have been asked to step back from their duties whilst complaints are being investigated, which is standard practice.

“Our Panel Members are incredibly committed volunteers, giving significant time and energy to supporting infants, children and young people in Scotland.

“However, the Children’s Panel is a legal tribunal and our volunteers are required to abide by national standards in terms of their knowledge, skills and conduct, hence it is essential we monitor those standards carefully and consistently."