The Whole System Approach (WSA) uses an early intervention approach to divert young people away from the criminal justice system and invites agencies to work together to achieve better outcomes.

About the WSA

In 2010, based on research such as the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, the Scottish Government introduced its Whole System Approach (WSA) as an early intervention for young people who have offended. The WSA utilises multi-agency partnerships to keep those under 18 out of the criminal justice process, avoid labelling and implement early interventions in the first instance. Built on an evidence base that asserts that the earlier a young person is removed from the criminal justice system the less likely they are to re-offend, the approach caters to those who require formal measures such as compulsory supervision by the Children’s Hearing System, prosecution, secure care, or custody. It is important to note that it is a voluntary programme thus local authorities can choose whether to incorporate it into their youth justice strategy.

To achieve its aims, the WSA established three main policy strands to target the reduction of young offenders in the criminal justice process or system:

  1. At the point of arrest (POA)- Early and effective intervention brought about by the establishment of a Juvenile Liaison Office (JLO) risk assessment team/Youth Management Unit. This unit at the point of arrest determines if a case is suitable for early diversion or if it should be referred for a direct measure or to the Children’s Reporter and Procurator Fiscal. As a result of such early intervention, the amount of time that a young offender spends under charge is significantly reduced.
  2. After POA: Pre-referral screening- At this level, a case that is identified for early diversion is sent to partner agencies. After which there is a multi-agency screening group that meets and which agencies and diversionary programmes can help the young offender. They may also decide that the young offender should be referred back to direct measures or the Children’s Reporter and/or Procurator Fiscal.
  3. Post screening– In the case of the offender being eligible for diversion, the most appropriate agencies then take lead in the diversion. Such agencies could include:
  • Youth Justice Social Work (including mentoring support)
  • Children and Families Social Work
  • Health (CAMHS and ISSU18) usually in regards to substance misuse
  • Sacro (including restorative justice)
  • Education (referral to Education Welfare Officer)
  • Community Safety (such as home visits)
  • Employability

These three main policy strands have worked together to create a practitioner-friendly, user prioritising, and cost-saving approach to youth offending that has been praised throughout Scotland by practitioners and service users alike. However, this case study will focus on the strand of the WSA that is most innovative; the Pre-Screening Referrals.

Pre-Referral Screening (PRS)

The aim of the PRS in conception was to remove the youth from the view of the criminal justice system wholly. As a result, within the pre-referral screening, all offending behaviour is treated as a call for welfare concerns rather than a criminally substantive issue in its own right. All agencies involved in the pre-referral screening meeting share information constantly to make sure that every practitioner involved is fully informed about the young person’s circumstances.

Essentially, PRS facilitates better outcomes regarding young offenders because – through information sharing – it provides a fuller picture of the causes and or context of offending behaviour. Thus, making it easier for other agencies such as health, education, employability, etc. to offer their help.

How it works

The PRS process is started by a police charge. The charge is quickly referred to a Police Juvenile Liaison (JLO) staff risk assessment team, who decides whether the case is suitable for early diversion or not.

When a case is identified as suitable for diversion, they are discussed at multi-agency meetings with a range of partners from health to employability to education to young people services. Each partner has the authority to access and share confidential client information and also accepts the responsibility to divert cases to their respective agencies. In the meetings they discuss:

  • Who is currently working with the young person
  • Offending and welfare concerns
  • Identification of both risk factors and protective factors
  • An agreement of the most appropriate agency for diversion or
  • An agreement that the case should be referred to SCRA or the Procurator Fiscal on the grounds of welfare needs and/or persistent offending.

Upon deciding that an agency should take the lead on the case, the case is immediately forwarded to the partner agencies and thus, exits the criminal justice system.

Impact of PRS

As a practitioner described, before PRS, it was ‘only the Police and SCRA [Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration] that had all the information’, which made it harder for someone outside of criminal justice to be part of the solution or to keep an eye on the young person’s welfare. Thus, offending behaviour was more likely to be seen as a criminal offence instead of a welfare issue, and a young offender was more likely to be subjected to the criminal justice process. With PRS, it is more likely for other agencies outside of police and SCRA to see that ‘there’s something not right going on’.

As a result of the information sharing between the agencies, PRS encompasses the WSA ethos by making sure that all agencies are as informed as necessary. Further, due to the frequency of the meeting of the agencies, the PRS process has helped to establish trust and professional understanding of each other’s work. The professional understanding is further strengthened by the diversity of the expertise held by PRS partners which allows for the partners to respond to a diversified array of welfare concerns in a swift and informed fashion.

Another innovative element of PRS is the versatility of possible outcomes. A range of outcomes is available to partner agencies; from police warning letters to diversion to community safety. However, it is also possible for young people to be allocated to more than one service. Thus, there is a constant view of multi-agency working to help the young person. Such multi-agency has pleased practitioners as well as the young people that have gone through the system.


The WSA (with particular mention for PRS) has been heralded as an effective, efficient and successful approach, with significant reductions in referrals to SCRA to the tune of 83%, a 70% reduction in under-18s in custody, and a 74% reduction in young people appearing in court.

WSA has also been evaluated in three Scottish local authorities, each with a significantly varied geographical, demographic and organisational backdrop. The evaluation was carried out by the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Their overall finding noted that while there is room for improvement, particularly in terms of flexibility in implementing the approach across local authority areas, the WSA has achieved many of its aims and has been a galvanising factor in driving significant improvements in partnership working, and in particular information-sharing and shared learning across agencies. Further, the evaluation has found that practitioners expressed a clear commitment to the principles, goals, and values of the WSA.

Next steps

To meet particular outcomes highlighted in Scotland’s new Youth Justice Vision, published in June 2021, the delivery of the WSA remains a top priority. Plans include extending WSA to provide support up to age 26 as well as raising the age of referral to the Principal Reporter to 18 for all children with a presumption against under-18s, in line with the Lord Advocate’s prosecution policy. If this is not feasible, they must instead be provided with a trauma-informed approach.

If you would like to learn more about the WSA, please direct any enquiries to the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice at or Getting it Right for Every Child at


This case study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019 and updated by Maysa Clam in 2022

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