Children’s Panel volunteers blast ‘unfair’ complaints process

Volunteers say they're not allowed to challenge complaints made against them.

Members of Scotland’s Children’s Panel say the process to deal with complaints against them is “unfair” and “needs a radical overhaul”.

Three volunteers sit on children’s hearings and decide the next steps for a child or young person in need of help, support or protection. The decisions they make can have a significant impact on their lives.

Ian Fulton, who had been a volunteer for 20 years, says members are not given the opportunity to put forward a “realistic argument” in their defence if a “trivial” complaint is made about them.

He had an exemplary record until last year when a complaint that he had not given a family enough time to participate was upheld – something he denies. Another complaint was not upheld.

He said: “Many of us have had no knowledge of what the accusations have been until maybe half way through the hearing.

“We have been refused point-blank access to any documentation which they have relied on. We don’t know who the accusers are. We don’t know who any of the witnesses are.”

Mr Fulton is a part of a group of other panel members who say they have also suffered similar injustice and are now intending to lobby the Scottish Government to overhaul the system.

He said: “We are now in the position that the only recourse we have is to pursue this from a political dimension.

“The objective is to say that there has to be put in place a proper due process for all panel members in Scotland.”

Another panel member, who has volunteered for nine years, said “it is assumed that you’re guilty” and “it is assumed you’ve done something wrong”.

Anne Lee remains a sitting member of the panel, but said she had been removed as a course trainer after a “trivial” complaint was made against her by a third party.

She said: “Nobody ever checked with the person I was supposed to have been rude to whether or not she felt I’d been rude.

“That seemed to me really, really crucial.”

Panel members must adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights while conducting their duties.

However, they have been told Article 6 – the right to a fair trial – does not apply if a complaint is made against them.

Rhona Smith, a professor of international human rights at Newcastle University, said a fair system would allow accused volunteers to know the details of a complaint against them and have the chance to respond.

Children’s Hearings Scotland said its complaints process was “fair and robust”.

Chief executive Elliot Jackson said no volunteers had been removed as a result of a complaint.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We value the vital work and dedication of all of Scotland’s 3000 volunteer children’s hearings community.

“That is why we reformed the hearings system in 2011 to set up a dedicated public body to support and oversee panel members.

“While Children’s panel membership issues are the responsibility of the National Convener of CHS, we would expect complaints to be dealt with appropriately in line with Children’s Hearings Scotland’s guidance.”

They added: “CHS have been following the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s (SPSO) standard complaints handling procedure.

“SPSO  have confirmed that CHS’s current complaint procedure is compliant.”

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