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In March 2021, the Judicial College published the Youth Defendants in the Crown Court bench book. Ben Brown examines the key features and how having it to hand can be of immeasurable assistance to any advocate unaccustomed to dealing with young defendants in the Crown Court.
The Youth Defendants in the Crown Court bench book (“the bench book”) is the first Judicial College resource bringing together all the resources relating to young defendants that a Crown Court judge might need.
The bench book has been co-authored by HHJ Heather Norton and District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts) Gareth Branston and it builds upon the ‘Youths in the Crown Court Toolkit’ released by the Judicial College in April 2016. Not only does the bench book significantly expand upon all previous works, it also comprehensively deals with the most significant changes in youth justice in recent years, including the introduction in April 2017 of the Sentencing Children and Young People Definitive Guideline.
It is suggested within the bench book that it is best utilised as an online resource and it is “anticipated that there will be revisions and amendments from time to time to ensure that it remains up-to-date”. Notably, it is made clear that it is intended to be up to date as of 01 January 2021.
Generally, cases involving young defendants will be dealt with in the Youth Court, and quite rightly so. However, in those serious cases when young defendants appear in the Crown Court it is more important than ever to for practitioners to understand their client’s case from the perspective of the Bench. To this end, the bench book can provide invaluable assistance and guidance.
Whilst there can be a myriad of ways in which the bench book can be of assistance to practitioners, the following are some of the more useful for those getting to grips with young defendants in the Crown Court.
The role of the Youth Offending Team
The bench book provides clear guidance on the assistance the YOT provide. Reminding judges that, unlike an errant probation officer, the “absence of a YOT officer should only be tolerated in exceptional circumstances and for a very good reason.”
The bench book helpfully outlines the assistance YOT can provide in the following key areas:
The decision to charge and out-of-court disposals
The decision to charge and the linked consideration of out-of-court disposals are particularly important for young defendants because they are eligible for cautions for more serious offending than adults. A Crown Court Judge must not be allowed to forget the significance of these disposals simply because it is ‘too late’ once a case reaches court. If a young defendant changes their mind and wishes to plead guilty, admissions may justify an out of court disposal not previously available. The appropriate citation from the bench book should nudge even the most stubborn of judges toward an adjournment to allow it to be considered (Chapter 6, paragraphs 7 and 41 deal with this point).
The bench book very helpfully outlines the relevant sections contained in the Youth Cautions: Guidance for Police and Youth Offending Teams, Code of Practice for Youth Conditional Cautions and The Director’s Guidance on Youth Conditional Cautions. Having the key provisions to hand from this guidance does not only assist when making submissions at court but also, if written representations are required.
Attendance of Parent or Guardian at Court
Unlike with adult defendants, a young person appearing before the court should always be accompanied by a parent/guardian. This can introduce unique challenges where, for example, the young person’s parent is not supportive, legal guardians are not available, or the young person doesn’t want either or both of them informed. The bench book again offers essential guidance.
In addition to setting out the relevant provisions, the bench book outlines a number of practical considerations. Notably, should a young defendant be without a parent/guardian, “the court may consider taking steps to ensure attendance. Section 34A (1) Children and Young Persons Act 1933 provides the power to issue a summons (and in due course a warrant) to require attendance.”
Furthermore, the bench book usefully notes that an older sibling or cousin, rather than a parent, may accompany a young defendant. In such circumstances the court, “may need to make enquiries to ensure that the accompanying person (a) is an adult; (b) satisfies the definition of ‘guardian’ for the time being; and (c) is unconnected to the offences before the court.”
It is fundamental to the administration of justice that it must be carried out in public. The public, but in practice – the media, have the right to attend court hearings and report on what transpires. However, there are a number of crucial statutory exceptions to this principle relating to young defendants.
There is a complex statutory framework that governs automatic restrictions and discretionary restrictions as young defendants navigate through the various hearings that they must participate in. The bench book provides a very detailed and comprehensive explanation of all the relevant principles, definitions, restrictions and procedures that can assist those getting to grips with this complex area.
Sentencing general principles
The sentencing exercise for any young defendant can often be challenging, complex and time consuming. There are a number of considerations which practitioners need to be mindful of not only to aide a young defendant, but also to assist the court. The bench book clearly and categorically outlines the areas that need to be at the forefront of practitioner’s minds. It reminds judges that “when sentencing an adult, the focus will generally be on the offence. When sentencing a child or young person, however, the focus shifts from the offence to the offender.”
The priorities of the bench book will likely influence the areas judges will be most mindful of. By being aware of these, practitioners can provide the most useful, and persuasive, assistance to the court. For example, it is made abundantly clear that, “Judges and advocates alike are expected to be familiar with the Youth Guideline, and to follow the approach to sentencing set out there in”.
In addition, the bench book outlines the correct procedure to be adopted if a young defendant crosses a relevant age threshold and how a sentencing exercise should be conducted if the age of the defendant is not known or is in dispute.
Across the 158-pages of the bench book, invaluable advice is contained on practically every page for those practitioners who are unaccustomed to dealing with young defendants in the Crown Court. The benefits to practitioners that can be gained from having a detailed knowledge of the bench book go far beyond those identified in this article and it is hoped that this will provide nothing more than a springboard to develop a greater understanding of an invaluable tool.
Ben Brown has a busy Crown Court practice and is instructed as a led junior and junior alone. He has a wide-ranging practice encompassing organised crime, serious violence, sexual offences, regulatory offences, financial crime and general crime.
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