IT is regarded as one of the most profound social developments in modern day Scotland.

In 1960, a committee was set up by arch devolutionist Lord Kilbrandon to respond to concerns over youth justice and investigate possible changes to the approach. 

At that time, children and young people charged with offences and those experiencing neglect or abuse were all handled by juvenile courts.

The committee realised there was a common thread. The majority of children were deficient in basic, parental care..

It was agreed that a new system of “needs not deeds” was required where all but the most serious cases would be taken out of the courts and handled by a panel of highly trained, volunteers.

This is an enduring system of 50 years 

The first children’s hearings took place 50 years ago this week on April 15 1971 and while the system has evolved and changed over the decades and poverty and the complexity of cases has increased, the ethos remains the same - the protection of the child.
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Lord Kilbrandon died at his home near Oban, aged 83 in 1989. As well as overseeing the legal reform for the treatment of young offenders, he was also author of the report which proposed a Scottish Assembly.

Today, offences make up a small proportion of the cases that are heard in local authority offices. Most involve neglect or abuse in a pattern that is often repeated through generations and tends to be rooted in poverty and deprivation.

Of the 9,206 children and young people who were receiving support from local authorities in March 2019, 85% had only every been referred on care and protection grounds.

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In 2019, an act was passed by the Scottish Government raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 but child protection leaders believes this doesn’t go far enough. 

“Children’s Hearings Scotland are on record as supporting up to 16,” says Elliott Jackson, National Convenor and CEO of Children’s Hearings Scotland.

“There is a lot of work going on with the Scottish Government and I think there is an inevitability about moving it forward in incremental steps from 8 to 16.

“There are many arguments that a young person is a young person until they turn 25. 

“Decriminalising children is absolutely critical and aligned with making sure Scotland is the most important place to grow up in.

"But I think there is another element here in terms of public accountability, in terms of the victims of crime. They need to feel supported. If someone commits a serious crime, they will be filtered out and dealt with by the courts.”

An Independent Care Review set up by Scotland’s First Minister recommended that help for families must be delivered much earlier and the hearing system must plan to “shrink and specialise”,

“Everyone in the hearings system welcomes this, “ says the CEO.

“We have always argued for is that those children and their families who are referred by social workers, police etc should get support much earlier.

“They are looking to really invest in family support with the Scottish Government which means there is enough resources that we have agencies who can parachute in to work with that family before they get to a crisis point.

“We handle 35,000 hearings a year and have got 15,000 children and young people on our books so even if got half that, 7,500 children across Scotland are getting their needs met, further upstream than having to come into the hearings system.”

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Over 2018/19, 31,653 Children’s Hearings were held for 13,667 children and young people.

There are around 3,000 volunteers, who contribute to the system, filling six roles. Each hearing is ‘staffed’ by three panel members who decide the best course of action of vulnerable children after careful consideration of reports and the advice of social workers, child psychologists, teachers and reporters, who oversee the entire process.

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“When we look back at Kilbrandon, this is an enduring system of 50 years.  Children’s panel members go through an incredible amount of training. They receive a professional development award, which is SQA approved and they have a commitment for ongoing training. 

“For any new piece of legislation that comes into force, we have to make sure that panel members are aware of how this impacts on their practice. They have to be trauma informed, which they are. “

Mr Jackson said he would like to see an end to male/female gender split quotas which he said results in appointees having to turn down “excellent female candidates”, while 10% should come from a care experienced background and this year’s intake has achieved 7%.

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The views of the child are central to the process but panel members must balance this with the protection and welfare of the young person.

The majority will be placed under a Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO) which results in a network of local authority support being put in place for the child, which can be as straightforward as assistance to get to school, curfews or mental health support.

Minimum intervention and keeping children in the family home, if it is safe to do so, is a  cornerstone of the system as research shows it results in better outcomes.

Mr Jackson suggests CSO’s may in future apply to the whole family and not just the child because, there has been accusations that it is seen as a punitive rather than protective measure.

The Children’s Hearing System is unique to  Scotland, although a similar system was adopted in Guernsey. Why does Mr Jackson believe it has not been replicated south of the border?

“I was a panel member in the late 1990s and I remember that on two or three occasions, someone from Whitehall would attend a hearing to look at the system.

“England is a huge slumbering giant of a country and I don’t know if it was too complex in terms of changing it.

"They moved to a model of family courts, so they have adopted some elements of the system.  

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"I think the principle of keeping children out of court is hugely important and they have gone some way through family mediation and family mediation court models etc. I sense that from their perspective they have gone as far as they could but they have just announced a care review in England so who knows - they may revisit it.”

The national convenor said the pandemic had taken a huge toll on the hearings system. Local authorities were tasked with prioritising the most serious cases and he believes it may take until January 2022 to deal with the huge backlog of cases.

“Covid has impacted enormously on the system, said the CEO.

“We had to flick the system completely from face-to-face to online.

“We managed to do that successfully and the government brought in emergency legislation, which allowed our colleagues at SCRA  (Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration) to make powers such as extending legal orders, which was really helpful to protect those children who were most vulnerable.

“As each element of the restrictions kicked in we had to respond pretty quickly.  Face-to-face hearings were only held in exceptional circumstances but the wearing of masks changes the dynamic.

“Certainly it’s been a bit of a challenge.

"The combination of panel members, reporters, social workers have all done extremely well in really, really difficult circumstances.”

HeraldScotland:

Added to the backlog of cases, the child protection sector is expected to experience a surge in referrals in the coming months. With services restricted and school closures children have been less visible through the pandemic.

“They talk about hidden harm such as domestic abuse and there is the mental health aspect. We have had information from health services which talks about child and adolescent mental health having really suffered.

“We see it in your newspaper every day.”

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However, there has been some unexpected and welcome benefits in the shift to online hearings which could help address one of the system’s challenges.

Non-attendance by children at hearings is common. They may find the experience traumatic and repeat hearings impinges on education. However, it can result in the views of the child - which are central to the entire process - being missed.

“What we  have done in the move to a digital platform is cram 15 years of change into one year. 

“What we are seeing indicatively, through some initial research is that some children are actually feeling the benefit of contributing to a hearing from their home or somewhere else and not being in the hearing room.

“So those children who might not have spoken out, or might not have attended their hearing have opportunities and we now have a proven concept for doing this. 

“Young people often talk about the stigma of being taken out of school to go to their hearing. There is nothing to preclude the school putting in a private room and for that young person to come in digitally from their school and provide their insight.

“One of the other things we are looking at are video statements.  At the moment children fill in a form for recording their views and it’s dated.

"How about this, where a young person can log in to a system using their phone and can securely give the panel members a five-minute contribution into their lives.

“What we have got now, is a real sense of opportunity.”