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BLOG: Young People in the Criminal Justice System


“With a child or young person, the consideration of age requires a different approach from that which would be adopted in relation to the age of an adult”

At a recent event focusing on advocacy on behalf of young people we posed questions as to how legal professionals can best utilise their skills in what is and should be a specialist area of the criminal justice system.  

The impact of any interaction with the criminal justice system is likely to have a profound effect on a young person’s life.  The Youth Court is designed to be both structurally and legally different to the adult courts recognising the nature of those who come before it, and the capacity for intervention.  However, it is part of the duty of advocates in the Youth Court and the Crown Court to ensure that the differences are adhered to rather than being given mere lip service.  It is our view that when representing a young person, from police station through to hearings at courts, we need to remind ourselves of those differences and ensure they are a feature of representation.

In the police station such an approach – of keeping alive a culture of difference in the treatment of youths – can be attained by asking for a fresh look to be taken even at that stage in the proceedings.  It is crucial that police officers are reminded that children in the police station are not ‘mini-adults’ and that in all encounters with the police those below the age of 18 should be treated as children first.

Their vulnerability should be identified and responded to effectively in order to protect them from harm.  It is only the representative in the police station who is able to seek to ensure that happens. Every interaction with the criminal justice system, at any stage, should be viewed as an intervention and an opportunity to keep children and young people out of the criminal justice system. Where possible it is important that young people are not criminalised for behaviour that can be more appropriately dealt with by other means: no further action; alternative offences; diversion; youth conditional caution; youth caution; community resolution/restorative justice; outcome 21 or outcome 22.

In the courts we need to ensure that the prospect of any of these alternative disposals, if appropriate, is kept alive and we should not be afraid to request adjournments for the same, and to consider utilising the specialist skills of the Youth Offending Service (YOS) in support.  If matters proceed to a hearing or trial, and result in a finding of guilt by way of a plea or finding of the court, the particular approach identified to sentencing young people should be thrust forward and at every step the court reminded of the important principle that they are responsible for applying – primarily that the aim in sentencing young people is to prevent reoffending and to remember the welfare of the young offender.

Advocacy for young people brings many complexities with it.  Published statistics regularly show that one in ten young people are likely to suffer from mental health difficulties.  Very often young people who come within the criminal justice system have particular needs.  There may be many problems they are dealing with in their daily lives, that often mean that an arrest or an appearance will not be the most significant issue they are coping with.  Parents and carers have different needs, and make other demands of a youth advocate, but are an important part of the process.  The advocacy of a legal professional dealing with young people is not only for the Crown Court Judge or Youth Court bench.  It is for the police, for the Crown Prosecution Service, for their parents or carers, for their friends or associates, for the Youth Offending Service, for medical professionals, for their community and last but not least for the young person themselves.

Members of the bar, on renewal of their practicing certificate, need to declare if they undertake work in the youth court.  There is not, as yet, any particular training requirement necessary in order to tick that box, but in itself it serves as a reminder that this is an area of advocacy that demands a different approach – those who work in the youth justice system are best placed to ensure the differences are observed in practice rather than in breach. Be bolder than you might normally be – if it is the right thing to do, the results may be worth it.

Sandra Paul, Partner at Kingsley Napley

Marie Spenwyn, barrister at Carmelite Chambers

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