Lady Hale says ‘it can’t be right’ for barristers to use the youth court as a training ground, and called for family and criminal courts to learn from each other over protecting children.
Award-winning charity Just for Kids Law yesterday evening (Wednesday 25 November) marked the official launch of its Youth Justice Legal Centre, with a reception at the House of Lords, attended by Baroness Hale.
Speaking at the event, Baroness Hale of Richmond, the only female judge in the Supreme Court, said:
‘Most barristers who appear in the youth court are the most junior and least experienced. They are using it as a way of learning to do what they will be doing later in the adult courts. That can’t be right.’
She also called for consistency of treatment of children across the family and criminal court system, and for child defendants to have the same protections as child witnesses.
She said, child defendants ‘are often just as, if not more, vulnerable than children who are witnesses and just as in need of measures of assistance, yet they have less general support around them’.
The YJLC has been over a year in the planning and has already provided support to nearly 150 defence lawyers, youth offending teams, youth justice professionals, children and families, who contacted the centre in urgent need of expert advice.
YJLC’s experience is that children are being failed at every level of the criminal justice system, because of lack of awareness of their acute vulnerabilities (see below), and because the professionals dealing with them lack appropriate experience and expertise. Youth justice is a discrete and complex area of law, but there is no requirement on lawyers doing the work to have undergone any special training to ensure they are properly equipped.
In recent weeks, cases dealt with by YJLC include:
- A teenager arrested by police for obstructing a railway line when she tried to kill herself. Her mother contacted YJLC for advice on how to get her daughter out of the criminal justice system and into appropriate care and treatment.
- A 14 year old with ADHD who, during an eight-week trial was left to sit in the dock at the back of the court behind glass panels, away from his family and unable to communicate with his legal team.
- A 17 year old with ADHD and learning difficulties whose court hearing ran from 10am until 7.30pm. She later became so agitated while waiting for the judge’s decision, she attempted suicide in the cells.
- A barrister at the Old Bailey representing two young boys being held on remand, who needed expert advice on the complex law around bail for children in order to argue for their release.
YJLC director and youth justice barrister Kate Aubrey-Johnson says:
‘All the evidence shows that children who end up in court are among the most vulnerable in society, with a range of communication and other problems. On any objective basis, children should only be represented by the most expert and experienced lawyers. Yet the opposite is the case. At the moment, youth court work is low status and low paid. It the place where junior barristers are expected to learn their craft, before moving on to more prestigious adult work. One barrister recently described it as “a kindergarten for professionals to gain skills”. This has to change. There would be an outcry if paediatric medicine were seen as a training ground for inexperienced surgeons, but this is exactly what happens in the criminal justice system.’
YJLC is calling for lawyers acting for young people to sign up to a code of conduct. This would include being able to demonstrate expertise in youth justice law, and having undergone training in how to communicate effectively with young people.
In a recent study by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (for the Bar Standards Board, see below), young defendants talked about their difficulties in following what was going on in their own trial.
One 16 year old said: ‘Adults might get the words but to teenagers like me, it was all long posh words.’ A 17 year old said: ‘You don’t really understand what they’re saying but they’re saying something about you, and then say they’ve made a decision.’ Another 17 year old described a judge as using ‘all these big fancy words”.
Kate Aubrey-Johnson says:
‘For many young people, what happens in court might as well be in a foreign language for all they understand what is going on. Lawyers acting for children need to be able to explain complex legal issues in straightforward language and to build trust and rapport with their clients in order to properly represent them.’
Notes for editors
- The Youth Justice Legal Centre provides legal information to lawyers and other professionals working with children in the criminal justice system. It was set up with funding from the Legal Education Foundation, The Mark Leonard Trust, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Network for Social Change www.yjlc.uk
- The recent Bar Standards Board Youth Proceedings Advocacy Review drew attention to the extensive research evidence of the needs and vulnerabilities of children in the youth justice system (page 4). These include findings that: six in 10 have a communication difficulty; more than half come from deprived households; 76 per cent have an absent father; 33 per cent have an absent mother; a third of young men and 60 per cent of young women have been in local authority care; one third have a recognised special educational need; 30 per cent of persistent offenders have a learning disability; up to 75 per cent have suffered a traumatic brain injury; 31 per cent had mental health problems (compared with 10 per cent of the wider population). Copies of the BSB report are available here:
- Just for Kids Law is an award-winning charity which provides support, advice and legal representation to children and young people. www.justforkidslaw.org
- Kate Aubrey-Johnson is a barrister and mediator. She is director of the Youth Justice Legal Centre and currently on sabbatical from Garden Court Chambers.
- Lawyers working with children elsewhere in the justice system already have special training and accreditation. The Law Society’s Children’ Law Panel is an accreditation scheme for family lawyers. Crown Prosecutors and judges in the youth court also have special training. There is currently no equivalent for defence solicitors and barristers doing youth court work.