The Sheriff Court
The courts recognise that the panel is best placed to make decisions about the welfare of children in the Hearings system, but provide a review or appeal option in certain circumstances.
The sheriff becomes involved if there is [a] an appeal from the children’s panel or [b] a disagreement about the facts which are before the panel.
What happens when an appeal is made
An appeal can be taken by the parents(s), the child, the reporter or the safeguarder if there is a dispute about the decision of the children’s panel. The types of appeal which might be taken include whether someone is a relevant person, whether an order regulating contact between a parent and child is fair, or whether a child needs to live away from home. It might be argued that the panel did not have enough information to reach a decision. All the parties who were at the panel have the right to attend the appeal. Normally the person challenging the decision (the appellant) will present his or her case first and all parties have the chance to address the sheriff.
The sheriff has to decide if the children’s panel were justified in the decision which they made – did they have enough information or did they go about the decision making in the right way? In an appeal the sheriff can refuse the appeal, leaving the panel decision unaltered, make his or her own decision or send it back to the children’s panel to reach a new decision.
What happens when the statement of facts are not accepted
If the parent or child does not accept the statement of facts which the reporter presented to the children’s panel, then these facts have to be established before the sheriff. The responsibility is on the reporter to satisfy the sheriff (on a balance of probabilities) that the facts relied upon are true. The reporter will normally lead any witnesses first; so if the reporter alleges that a child committed an offence, they will call witnesses to the offence who can be asked questions by all the parties. Often there is an agreement upon an amended set of facts. If the facts are established, the case is sent back to the panel to make welfare decisions about the affected children. If not, then the referral is discharged.
If the case comes to the sheriff court, the sheriff fixes a date for a hearing in court and decides if there is to be a safeguarder or not. The sheriff then makes orders to regulate the procedure. These orders might include regulating the number of witnesses or documents, and having expert witnesses exchange information to allow the court hearing to be more focused.
The law says that the sheriff must so far as practicable and allowing for age and maturity let the child indicate whether to express views and give an opportunity to express views. The sheriff must take account of any views expressed.