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Children's hearings reforms could work better, MSPs report

26 April 2017

Changes to the children's hearing system since reforming legislation in 2011 are not always working as intended, a committee of MSPs has concluded.

It its report, Children's Hearing System – Taking Stock of Recent Reforms, Holyrood's Education & Skills Committee welcomes the improvements introduced through the Children's Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011, but believes that there is now a danger that some of the current procedures and the way that some hearings run in practice are making it more difficult for children and young people to be heard.

Evidence to the committee suggested that many children do not understand the process taking place or the large amount of paperwork associated with a hearing. The report recommends that a one page "child-friendly" summary be produced to provide information in an easily understood format.

An increasing number of solicitors are involved in the hearing system, following new provision for legal aid, and the committee was told that on occasion, a more adversarial atmosphere is being created in a minority of hearings. The report recommends that stricter training requirements are introduced for those solicitors involved in a hearing.

To protect the system, the committee calls for s 122 of the Act to be fully implemented so that all children have a right to an advocacy worker, and for the rules around the number of people attending hearings to be more strictly enforced.

It asks the Government to consider whether the grounds for referral should be extended to include allegations of trafficking and female genital mutilation.

It also wants to see a review of training for panel chairs, and more multi-agency training so that all present (such as social workers, teachers or solicitors) understand each other’s role.

As regards solicitors, the committee wants to see "greater awareness amongst those who attend panel meetings of the complaints process operated by the Scottish Legal Aid Board for solicitors who participate in hearings. Any solicitor who is properly participating in an appropriate manner should have nothing to fear from this raised awareness.

"Furthermore, the Scottish Legal Aid Board should continue to constantly review the competences and skills of the solicitors who are part of its register of those entitled to practise".

Convener James Dornan MSP commented: “Our committee met with young people who had been through the children's hearing system. Although we heard of many positive experiences, for many there was isolation, confusion and even fear about the process taking place.

“A system intended to put children at its heart must do just that. Provisions aimed at ensuring each young person can have an advocate are a positive step, but the fact that this is not yet enacted could mean that some young people still don’t have a voice. This needs resolved as soon as possible. We must work harder to ensure all those taking part in the process understand what is happening and understand that they have a voice and a right to be heard.”

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