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by Louise Wilson
25 May 2023
‘Transformational change’ needed in children’s hearing system

‘Transformational change’ needed in children’s hearing system

Scotland’s unique children’s hearing system must be overhauled and the volunteer-only model ended, an expert group has concluded.

The Hearings System Working Group, chaired by sheriff David Mackie, has recommended panels should include one professional chair alongside two panel members.

This chair would be salaried and highly-qualified, and children who attend hearings would appear before the same chair each time to avoid having to retell their story.

The current system involves three trained panel members who work on a voluntary basis and there is no guarantee children will appear before the same panel members.

Mackie said the recommendations of his report represented “transformational change” to the system, which has been in place in Scotland since the 1960s.

He said: “If implemented and resourced in full they will herald a step-change not only for the children’s hearings system but for how we work alongside children and families across Scotland.”

The working group, delivered with the support of The Promise (the independent care review commissioned by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2016), said the new chairs would implement an “inquisitorial model” to ensure hearings are not adversarial or confrontational, allowing the children involved to feel more relaxed.

It also called for all decision-makers in the system to be given specialist training in trauma, child development and communication.

The Scottish Government has said it will carefully consider the proposals of the report, with a full response to be set out later this year.

Children’s minister Natalie Don said: “Where early positive change is possible, I am clear that should happen quickly. The changes that need new law or new structures will take time, but I want to assure children, families and those that work in the system that there will be opportunities to contribute, and to shape future reforms.

“Children, young people and the care-experienced community – along with volunteers and professionals – want to see this work yielding positive, sustainable change. I am determined that we will deliver that for them.”

The working group was established in summer 2021 as part of the Keep The Promise agenda.

It took evidence from children with experience of the children’s hearing system via the Our Hearings Our Voice board, which is made up of those aged eight to 18.

The report contains 40 “calls to action” and over 100 individual recommendations, including around ensuring children and their families are better heard, streamlining processes and making the Child’s Plan (which sets out care plans for supporting children or young people) central to the system.

A Promise Bill is expected to be brought forward by government to give effect to some of the changes set out in this report and other work done by The Promise.

Fi McFarlane, head of public affairs at The Promise, said: “There will be challenges in making this vision delivered by this report a reality, but these recommendations align clearly with Scotland’s progressive direction on justice issues and ensuring there is early support for children and families to stop costly crisis interventions.”

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