Wrong to lock away children

5th January 2001 at 00:00
CHILDREN who are put in secure accommodation do not receive a fair trial and authorities may be breaching human rights legislation, according to a legal expert commenting after the Executive had opened Scotland's seventh secure unit.

More than 250 youngsters under the age of 16 are sent to secure accommodation each year because of persistent or serious offending, or because they are deemed in need of care and protection under closed supervision. The expansion in the number of places follows a review of the use of such accommodation - and complaints from local authorities and the police that insufficient places were available. The new unit, in Dundee, adds four places to the previous 91.

The decision to place a young person in secure accommodation is made at a children's panel hearing, often held on an emergency basis. Its recommendation then has be ratified by a director of social work.

But Kenneth Norrie, law professor at Strathclyde University, told The TES Scotland: "Under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights - binding on the Scottish Executive since 1999 - all offenders, regardless of age, are entitled to a fair trial. This strengthens a right already laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Child adoped in the UK in 1992 - a convention that requires that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law."

Professor Norrie said that procedures "seem to me to fall very far short of these requirements". A chief of social work was not a tribunal. "There is no right to appear before that person and there is no right of appeal."

The decision to put a child in secure accommodation has to be referred back to a panel after three days. But Professor Norrie said: "I am not satisfied the panel can provide a fair trial either. It has fundamental flaws - particularly the lack of legal representation. I am not wholly satisfied therefore that our system as it stands at the moment is not open to challenge."

Parents can appeal after a second panel hearing through the sheriff court. Such an appeal system was, however, "very clumsy. It takes longer than three days during which time the child is being deprived of his liberty."

Professor Norrie accepts that secure accommodation is still necessary in certain cases. "It has been used in Scotland as a means of last resort more because of a lack of sufficient places elsewhere rather than because of children's needs. There are still too few places."

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