Multi-agency - Changes to children's hearings system revised amid risk fears

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Concerns over increased danger to vulnerable youngsters prompts shake-up of draft bill

Radical changes to Scotland's world-renowned children's hearings system have been reined in, following concern that they would put vulnerable young people at risk.

Fears about needless red tape and the presence of lawyers in the system have also been addressed by the revised Children's Hearings Bill.

When the draft bill appeared last year, many argued that young people could fall off the radar because a key strength of the system - the ability of a children's reporter to oversee all aspects of a case - would be lost by passing some responsibilities to the "president" of a new national body for children's panels.

Reporters would no longer have been required to attend hearings, administration of which would have been transferred to the new body.

But the revised bill keeps more responsibility with reporters, a move which opponents believed crucial to maintaining consistent contact with children and families. Reporters will continue to organise hearings, issue papers and conduct appeals before sheriffs.

Advice to hearings, however, will come from the head of the new national body, now to be known as the "convener", after concerns about the overtones of "president".

Netta Maciver, chief executive of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, said: "We are delighted with the changes introduced in the new bill, which will help strengthen the hearings system and, more importantly, improve outcomes for children and young people."

Concerns from "many agencies" had been listened to by the Scottish Government, and the "valuable role" of the reporter was now recognised.

"The reporter is the one person who follows the child's case from receipt of referral to the final outcome, and it's important that this consistent approach will remain under the new bill," Ms Maciver said.

The hearings, which have long been admired internationally for their non- confrontational approach, should remain a largely unchanged experience for the tens of thousands of children involved each year.

Government officials admit that lawyers will feature more frequently in hearings. But they insist that this will still be very rare and should only involve lawyers specialising in children's and family issues.

Controversial interim legislation last year made state-funded legal representation available to some vulnerable parents, but only 124 took this up in the first half of 2009-10. Previous legislation had already opened up state-funded legal representation for vulnerable children, but only 507 used this in the first six months of 2009-10. Some 40,000 hearings are expected to be held during 2009-10.

Officials believe legal advice, which has been mooted for children's panel members, will be taken up even less frequently.

The biggest shake-up in the bill will be the formation of the new national body for panel members, which will standardise training and expenses payments throughout Scotland.

Its convener will have to consult with local authorities on the work of teams in their area. Panel members had protested that the draft bill would create an overly bureaucratic system, remote from local needs.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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