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The Children's Panel - life changing

Development of the Children’s Hearings System

Picture of a child painting

A developing system

The Children's Hearings System began operation on 15 April 1971. Children were referred to the Children’s Reporter in ever-increasing numbers year by year with hearings taking place across Scotland. By 1996 when the twelve regional local authorities were reorganised into thirty-two single-tier authorities, there were approximately 2,000 panel members serving throughout Scotland and this number has continued to increase slowly.

The reporter service, which was placed within local authorities, became a separate agency, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, in early 1996.

Though not without its critics, the system gained in credibility and respect over its first twenty-five years. The principle that determination of disputed fact and decisions on the care of the child are separate was described by Lord President Hope in 1991 as 'the genius of this reform which has earned it so much praise'.

Initially children's hearings were concerned mainly with children who had committed offences, but in the late 1970s reported incidents of child abuse increased and in the 1980s child sexual abuse began to be acknowledged as a widespread problem. The number of care and protection referrals to hearings has grown steadily over the years and now vastly outweighs offence referrals. The system also had to adapt to social changes over this period which have put pressure on children and their families.


The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995, implemented on 1 April 1997, marked a significant stage in the development of legislation on the care of children and largely replaced those parts of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 which relate to children. It was centred on the needs of children and their families and defines parental responsibilities and rights in relation to children.


Protection of rights

The European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951. Its historical context is the Second World War and the lowering of the 'Iron Curtain' across Eastern Europe. The rights within the Convention apply to everyone but not all of the rights are relevant to the Children's Hearings System.   

Key articles which are or may be relevant to the hearings system are:

Article 6: right to a fair trial
Article 8: right to respect for private and family life
Article 3: prohibition of torture
Article 5: right to liberty and security and Article 7: no punishment without law
Article 14: prohibition of discrimination
The First Protocol Article 2: right to education

The rights are known as 'Convention rights'.


The Scotland Act 1998

In terms of the Scotland Act 1998, rights conferred by the European Convention of Human Rights have been binding on the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government since 20 May 1999 when the Scottish Parliament came into being. Scottish legislation must be compatible with Convention rights.


The Human Rights Act 1998

Since 2 October 2000, when the Human Rights Act came into force, all 'public authorities' (which includes children's hearings, local authorities and the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration) have been required to ensure that their actions are compatible with Convention rights. Under the Human Rights Act 1998 alleged breaches of Convention rights can be taken to domestic courts or tribunals (including children's hearings) in the first instance, and can be enforced by them. This provides the opportunity for easier access to courts to enforce rights and for speedier resolution of disputes.


The Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011

The Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 (the 2011 Act) is the Act which now governs the Children's Hearings System. The Act entered into force on 24 June 2013. The 2011 Act revisits the whole Hearings System. In essence, the 2011 Act replaces Part II, Chapters 2 and 3, and Schedule 4 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (the 1995 Act).

The 2011 Act seeks to:

  • strengthen the place of children
  • deliver better support for children
  • deliver better support for panel members
  • ensure national consistency
  • modernise processes.

The 2011 Act made some fundamental structural changes to the Children's Hearings System:

  • the creation of the role of the National Convener, to act, for the first time, as a figurehead for panel members and ensure they are consistently supported to a high standard
  • the creation of a dedicated national body, Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS), to support the National Convener in the delivery of his/her functions associated with the recruitment, selection, training, retention and support of panel members. This will result in panel members being better equipped to determine the best possible outcomes for children in hearings no matter where in Scotland the child lives
  • the establishment of Area Support Teams by the National Convener in collaboration with local authorities that will support the Hearings System at a local level
  • the creation of a national Children's Panel
  • the creation of a national Safeguarder panel to improve consistency and standards and improve understanding within the system of the role of Safeguarder.

The 2011 Act also made a number of changes to the law by which a children's hearing makes decisions:

  • the grounds of referral were revised and modernised
  • pre-hearing panels were created to make some procedural decisions in advance of the children's hearing
  • the legal orders panel members can make were simplified and modernised
  • more flexibility was given to the interim decisions panel members can make
  • changes were made to how a solicitor is available to assist a child, relevant person and certain others at a hearing.