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The Children's Panel - life changing

Background

Picture of a teenage boy on a bike

Background to the Children's Hearings System

Scotland’s Children’s Hearings System was introduced by the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and is now governed by the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011.

There was concern in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that change was needed in the way society dealt with children and young people in trouble or at risk. A Committee was set up in 1960 under Lord Kilbrandon to investigate possible solutions. On 15 April 1971 children’s hearings took over from the courts most of the responsibility for dealing with children and young people under 16, and in some cases under 18, who commit offences or who are in need of care and protection.

One of the strengths of the Children’s Hearings System is that it has been able to adapt to changing social and political climates. The fundamental principles on which it is based have been maintained - but processes have been changed in light of international conventions and case law. These include the specific rights for children contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the general human rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

The Kilbrandon Committee: remit and report

In May 1961, a committee was set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland under the chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon, a senior Scottish judge. Other members of the committee were four justices of the peace, four lawyers, a chief constable, a headmaster, a psychiatrist and a probation officer.

The remit of the committee was:  "to consider the provisions of the law of Scotland relating to the treatment of juvenile delinquents and juveniles in need of care or protection or beyond parental control and, in particular, the constitution, powers and procedure of the courts dealing with such juveniles, and to report".

No-one could have envisaged the innovative and radical recommendations that the Kilbrandon Committee would produce, which led to the setting up of the Children's Hearings System. The Committee's report was presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Scotland in April 1964.

The Kilbrandon Committee: conclusions

At the time the Kilbrandon Committee was considering the way forward, ‘’juvenile delinquency’’ was seen as a much greater problem than cases in which children were the victims of cruelty or neglect.

The Kilbrandon report defined core principles which were realised through the creation of the Children’s Hearings System:

  • whether they require care or have offended, children or young people in trouble have similar needs and those needs should be met through a single system
  • a preventive approach, involving early identification and diagnosis of problems, is essential
  • once the facts of the case have been established, the focus of the hearing should be on the best means of meeting the child or young person's needs
  • in deciding how a child or young person’s needs should be met, his or her welfare throughout childhood should be the paramount consideration
  • the child or young person’s family and its circumstances should be integral to the discussion about how best to meet his or her needs
  • compulsory measures of care should be applied only where the child or young person’s welfare cannot be secured through voluntary arrangements
  • through the appointment of lay panel members, the child or young person’s local community should participate in decisions about children or young people

In taking all these factors into account, the Committee reached one of its most important and far-reaching conclusions:

The overriding and paramount principle was that the needs of an individual child had to be assessed so that appropriate treatment could be applied. This could only be achieved by objective examination of all surrounding facts and circumstances. It was inappropriate to expect a single agency to determine disputed facts and establish what an individual child's needs were in the light of the fullest information about the child's personal and family circumstances.

The Kilbrandon Committee recommended that entirely new arrangements were required to deal with all children in need and that a special treatment agency or panel was necessary, which would be neither a court of law nor a local authority committee.

The panel would be a lay body, comprising people with the knowledge and experience necessary to consider children's problems. This was a model on which none of the then current systems of juvenile justice was based. The panel would have powers of compulsory action and the power to vary measures appropriate to the individual child.

What distinguished panels from the juvenile courts then in existence was the manner in which their powers would be exercised. The driver for action would be the child's need for special measures of education, training or support. The panel's jurisdiction would be founded on grounds where the basic facts were agreed or accepted, with disputed matters being referred to a sheriff for adjudication.