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Prisons and Courts Bill 2017

Alliance for Youth Court Reform – Evidence paper

The Alliance for Youth Court Reform is an alliance of youth justice organisations brought together under the chairmanship of Lord Carlile that aims to make improvements to the Prisons and Courts Bill in how children and young people are dealt with by the courts.  The organisations included are:

Evidence

We are very disappointed that this Bill misses the opportunity to follow up recommendations made in Lord Carlile’s report published in June 2014, Independent Parliamentarians’ Inquiry into the Operation and Effectiveness of the Youth Court, and those in Charlie Taylor’s Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales published in December 2016.

Lord Carlile noted that the court must be one that serves the interests of victims, defendants and society as a whole, which required an understanding of what is being said and done, why it is being said and done, and what are the consequences.

Charlie Taylor concluded:

 “…that the courts are simply not set up to ensure the full participation of children in criminal proceedings”.

“…the criminal courts are not equipped to identify and tackle the issues that contribute to and prolong youth offending.”

It is the case that the experience of many children and young people in our court system is poor, leaving them confused, disengaged and disaffected.

Whilst we welcome some of the aims of the court reforms set out in the Bill that will speed up the court process and remove unnecessary hearings, we cannot see that the needs of children and young people have been properly considered. Too often the law is made for adults and extended to children and young people with little or no consideration of their specific needs and vulnerabilities. This seems to be a pattern repeated in this Bill, which is process driven and does nothing to address the failings pointed out in the reports.

Improving the experience of children and young people involved in court proceedings is paramount and should start with a requirement that all those involved in such a case be specially trained. This was recommended by both Lord Carlile and Charlie Taylor. We welcome the action taken by the Bar Standards Board to introduce training standards but this will not reach the majority of representatives in the youth court, or indeed judges dealing with youth cases in the Crown Court.

The youth court has specific provisions to ensure that a child has the support of a youth offending team member, that magistrates are specifically trained and that the layout of the court is more informal. In addition courts must require a parent/guardian to attend where the child is aged under 16 (and they may do if the child is 16 or over): S34A, Children and Young Persons Act 1933. These provisions are aimed at supporting the active and effective participation of a child offender in the court process and ensuring their parent/guardian attends; even so the Taylor report identified that these adaptations were insufficient.

This Bill fails to consider the criticisms of the current process and ignores the shortcomings identified by both Lord Carlile and Charlie Taylor. The provisions set out in Schedule 3 for conducting preliminary proceedings concerning children and young people in writing are worrying. They put at risk the innovative problem-solving approaches being trialled in certain areas and would place pressure on the child and their parents to plead guilty inappropriately.

Extending the use of live links for children and young people in the ways set out in clauses 32 and 33 and Schedule 4 and 5 runs counter to the need for courts to obtain more knowledge of a child and their background and to have more engagement with the child during a sentence. Parents/guardians will be further distanced from the child and the court process, risking disengagement and abnegation of responsibility. Reliance on live links also risks the loss of considering a court appearance as a ’big thing’.

The use of live links has to date been limited for children and young people to remand hearings when there is an urgency to review their detention. But we have heard disturbing reports that this boundary has been overstepped with pleas being taken via live link without the reassurance that the child understands the procedure and has had the support of an informed adult; our information is that children dealt with this way have reported not understanding what the outcome was.

We would like to see in the Bill a clear recognition of the needs and requirements that should apply when a child appears before the court and, in particular, how the consideration of their welfare is to be achieved (as required under s44 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933) where defendants are participating via live links.

Looked after/black and minority ethnic children

The Laming Report published in May 2016 In care out of trouble identified the disproportionate representation of looked after children in the criminal justice system – children in care in England are six times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence than other children (Department for Education (2015) Statistical First Release SFR 34/201) – and how they often appeared in court where other children would not:

“We kept being given the reassurance that every case involving a looked-after child was reviewed according to a special protocol to weed out minor misdemeanours and only prosecute those cases which passed a ‘public interest’ test. And yet the young people continued to appear in court for throwing ice creams, kicking doors, squirting shower gel on carpets, using abusive language to staff.” Magistrate recently retired

The Taylor report identified that there are high numbers of black, Muslim and white working class boys in the youth justice system, often looked after and with learning difficulties or mental health problems. Such vulnerable children cannot be dealt with satisfactorily in the processes outlined in this Bill.

Both Lord Carlile and Charlie Taylor identified shortcomings in local services as needing to be addressed.  The failure to include a means of holding local authorities to account better for their responsibilities in respect of a child who is before the court is another critical oversight in this Bill.

We cannot understand why this Bill does not include some measures that set out an intention by the Government to improve how children and young people are dealt with in courts and respond to the series of critical reports they have received.  We will press to have some included.  We set out below some specific recommendations for inclusion in the Bill:

  • A new power giving a youth court authority to defer a decision;
  • A new power giving a youth court specific authority to refer a decision to prosecute back to the Crown Prosecution Service and / or the Police;
  • A new power giving the youth court authority to make an order comparable to section 37 of the Children Act 1989;
  • Tightening up procedures to ensure that all save murder cases and those of a similar exceptional nature are dealt with in the youth court;
  • Enabling reference to the concept of problem solving in the youth court.

We will press for removal of clause 30 and Schedule 3, clauses 32 and 33 and Schedules 4 and 5, in so far as they relate to young defendants as separate provisions would be appropriate as necessary.

If you want to know more please contact the Secretary at: richard@michaelsieff-foundation.org.uk

Alliance for Youth Court Reform
April 2017