SENIOR members of Scotland’s Children’s Hearing System say they have been subjected to an arbitrary and unfair complaints process, leaving many feeling victimised and undermined.

The Children’s Hearing System considers cases of young people in trouble or in need of care, and is supposed to ensure all decisions are taken in the best interests of the child.

It relies entirely on the unpaid support of volunteer panel members, but now several highly experienced panel volunteers say the complaints system is not fit for purpose and has failed to treat them in a fair, transparent or just way.

Following a series of unconnected complaints against panel members, senior figures within the volunteer panel member community have blasted Children’s Hearings Scotland, which manages recruitment and training of the lay members of the public to sit on panels.

A number of senior volunteer panel members, with decades of experience in the system, have outlined a series of concerns about the way they and colleagues have been treated.

They allege:

l Panel members have been denied knowledge of the allegations or any evidence against them

l Investigations into any complaints are partial or one-sided

l Decisions are made to sack or suspend panel members before they are given a chance to put their side, and once taken they have no recourse to appeal

l This means they have no choice but to accept the decision or be removed form duties as a panel member

l This is causing an unnecessary loss of skill and experience, and disillusionment among those who remain.

Helen Cadden had been a panel member for 19 years and had received nothing but positive feedback until a hearing in December 2018.

Ms Cadden was accused of allowing “serious and sustained homophobic abuse throughout the hearing” after a couple, whose child had been placed in foster care, made offensive comments about the gay foster couple before the start and at the end of the hearing.

Ms Cadden maintains this is untrue and she could have done nothing to prevent the behaviour as it was not during the hearing itself.

She says the first she knew of the complaint was when she was phoned 10 weeks after the hearing and asked for her version of what happened.

She was not told what the complaint was until she received a letter saying it had been upheld.

Asked what kind of investigation had taken place, she was told all parties had been interviewed. It later emerged that only she had been spoken to.

She was suspended and told she can only return if she accepts the finding against her and undertakes retraining in conflict management and assertiveness. She is still trying to have the decision overturned.

Ms Cadden said: “We take justice extremely seriously and expect the organisation we are acting on behalf of to do the same.”

Pauline Casey resigned after eight years as a panel member following an investigation sparked when a fellow panel member complained about her.

Ms Casey was backed by her panel chair and 50 other panel members, and a review of her performance was positive, but she later learned that a secret second report had been written which she was not allowed to see.

She eventually obtained a heavily redacted copy following a subject access request.

“I asked ‘What is the evidence against me, can I see it?’,” said Ms Casey. “I was told ‘That’s not process’. I asked, ‘How do I appeal against this?’. I was told ‘That’s not process’.”

Another long-standing panel member, Mike Brady, said he too was kept in the dark over a complaint against him, and that the case was later misleadingly presented.

He said: “It still affected me and I have seen the impact on others of this process. It has an impact on their health and emotional wellbeing.”

Callum Black, a panel member of many years’ experience, said the system “flies in the face of fairness”, while another panel member Robert Wilmot warned that it will drive good people out.

“People feel tormented, pulled apart,” he said.

A revised complaints procedure has now been published, but the panel members say it fails to answer many of their concerns.

Maree Todd, the minister for children, has been told of the concerns around the complaints process. The issue is expected to be raised today during First Minister’s Questions.

In 2018/19, there were 41 complaints against panel members and 31,653 hearings.

Elliot Jackson, CEO and National Convenor, said that “despite the challenging nature of the role, there are very few complaints made about our panel members”.

He said: “We investigate all complaints thoroughly using a fair and robust procedure which always allows exploration of the complaint with both the subject, and those who have made the complaint.

“No volunteer has been removed as a consequence of a complaint. In some cases, volunteers have been asked to step back from their duties whilst complaints are being investigated, which is standard practice.”