Safeguarding children in the justice system

Bill to end under-18s being placed in young offenders institutions.

No child aged under 18 will be sent to a young offenders institution under legislation that has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament.

The Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill aims to improve experiences and outcomes for children by diverting them away from the criminal courts, with maximum use of the welfare-based children’s hearings system and age-appropriate settings.

The Bill, published today, is key to Keeping The Promise to deliver on the recommendations of the Independent Care Review.

It also seeks to increase protection of victims in children’s cases.

If passed by Parliament, the legislation will mean:

  • 16 and 17-year-olds will no longer be placed in young offenders institutions (whether on pre-trial or pre-sentencing remand, or following sentencing)
  • all under-18s can be referred to the children’s hearings system, helping to keep children out of criminal courts, where appropriate
  • increased protection and information for victims in cases involving children’s hearings
  • new powers for Scottish Ministers to help regulate the placement of children from elsewhere in the UK into secure and residential care in Scotland.

Children’s Minister Clare Haughey said:

“The Bill’s main purpose is to ensure that children up to age 18 who come into contact with care or justice services are dealt with in age-appropriate systems and settings.

“Where children are in conflict with the law, providing the best support to address the causes of their behaviours will help them to reintegrate, rehabilitate and desist from those behaviours. This, in turn, can prevent further harm being caused. The benefits are felt by everyone involved – the child themselves, their family, the person harmed and, ultimately, the wider community.

“Scotland’s Whole System Approach to youth justice has already contributed to significant positive change. Between 2008-09 and 2019-20, there was an 85% reduction in the number of children and young people prosecuted in Scotland's courts and a 93% reduction in 16 and 17-year-olds being sentenced to custody. As of 2 December, there were only two children in young offenders institutions in Scotland, compared with an average of 16 in 2021-22. This Bill aims to build on this progress.

“This legislation will also help to Keep The Promise to act on the recommendations of the Independent Care Review, which called for reforms on how children and families are treated both in Scotland’s care system and justice system.”


Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill

The Bill was developed following a public consultation that ran from 31 March to 22 June this year. A total of 106 responses were received. A Scottish Youth Parliament survey also generated 243 responses from children and young people.

Consultation analysis

In the case of serious offending by children aged 12 to 18, the decision to proceed through the criminal justice system will remain, as now, with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

The Bill, if passed, will support care-based alternatives to placing under-18s in young offenders institutions. Scottish Ministers are clear that the deprivation of liberty of a child should be a last resort and only for the shortest possible period of time; and where this is necessary, this should be in secure accommodation.

Young offenders institutions currently provide custodial facilities for 16 to 21-year-olds (or older in exceptional circumstances). They are part of the prison estate, managed by the Scottish Prison Service. In secure care, children are placed in a secure facility, with a trauma-informed approach taken in an age-appropriate setting.

If the Bill is passed, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration will be under stronger obligations to share information with victims about children referred.   

Scotland’s Whole System Approach to youth justice, which was introduced nationwide in 2011 and involves partners from across education, social work, policing and the third sector, works to intervene early to prevent offending and help reduce the number of victims. 

Criminal proceedings in Scotland: 2020-2021


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