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Youth Justice: Judicial System

In 2012 The Michael Sieff Foundation called for the extension of section 37 of the Children Act 1989 to the Youth Court.

The Michael Sieff Foundation is currently involved in discussions with The Ministry of Justice about extending the powers of the Youth Court to give it the same powers as are available to the family court to direct a Local Authority to report to the court.

You can download the full position paper here.

Youth Courts – the Cinderella of the Judicial System?

The Youth Court is over 100 years old. The original Juvenile Court was set up by the Children Act 1908, implemented in April 1909. For the first time, the Act separated children and young people from adults and established a court where specially trained magistrates sat, dealing with the young person’s criminal behaviour and their welfare needs. Despite the punishment/welfare pendulum swing backwards and forwards, dealing with children and young people holistically within a single court, continued through the decades and remained until the Children Act 1989 split the jurisdictions into the Youth Court (crime) and the Family Proceedings Court (care).

The current Youth Court deals with 10 to 17 year olds. Youth court magistrates sentence all young people other than for the most serious ‘grave crimes’ (i.e. they sentence over 99% of all crimes committed by young people). The Youth Court has a maximum custodial sentence of 24 months (Detention and training order). ‘Grave crimes’ are sent to the Crown Court where non- specialist Judges hear the cases, defended and prosecuted by barristers with no specialist training for dealing with children and young people. This contrasts to the Family Division, where specialist Judges and barristers handle cases in a separate jurisdiction up to the Head of the Family Division.

Magistrates sitting in the Youth Court are experienced at dealing with children and young people and undergo specialist training for this role. Youth court law is among the most complex in any jurisdiction, yet often it is considered the place for young barristers to start off. Solicitors do not have to have a specialist ‘ticket’ to practice in the Youth Court. CPS do have specialist practitioners.

Many people (District Judges, academics, magistrates and lawyers) working in the Youth and Family Courts systems believe there is a need for change Some argue for a joining of the youth and family jurisdictions to form a Family Justice Court dealing with children holistically, with care and crime together. This is how the Scottish Children’s Hearing system has operated for over 40 years. Children and young people who commit crimes are often the same children that are abused and neglected. Why not deal with them in one single jurisdiction?

Youth Court magistrates, week after week, see children and young people who they have to sentence for their criminal behaviour. They often come from very dysfunctional families with a multitude of problems. If the main principle of a Youth Court is to reduce reoffending, how can a purely criminal Court tackle these problems that are the underlying cause of the offending? A mainly criminal range of sentences does not address the needs of these families. Only by addressing these can we hope to make a start in reducing offending. Youth Courts do not even have the power to transfer cases (Magistrates’ Association policy) that demonstrate overwhelming welfare need from the Youth court to the Family Proceedings court where the family issues can be addressed. The recent Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report, ‘Rules of Engagement, Changing the heart of the Youth Justice System’, calls for radical change, saying ‘the CSJ believes that a joined up approach to youth offending is unlikely to be realised unless care and crime matters are address in the same court environment’. The Report goes on to recommend that youth court and family court proceedings be integrated and that an inquisitorial approach be adopted.

Our Youth Courts are mini adult courts. Much of the legislation is drafted for adults and handed down to the Youth Court with no regard for the particular needs of children. The Youth Court is often an inappropriate venue to deal with children and young people whose criminal behaviour has brought them to the notice of the criminal court that can not then address the underlying causes of that behaviour. Much of Europe has a holistic approach to dealing with children that are troubled or are in trouble. Some jurisdictions have inquisitorial systems. Would this approach be more suited to our young people?

Could it not be said that the way we treat children and young people should be the most important legal jurisdiction? The system needs to protect children that have been abused and neglected and prevent them committing further offences. Why, when youth crime is top of most politicians agendas and is featured in the media every day, has the way we deal with young people not been more closely scrutinised? This ‘Cinderella of the courts system’ needs a complete overhaul. Some would argue that we have in some respects gone backwards since the 1908 Children’s Act. A Royal Commission should be set up to examine the way we treat our children and young people under 18. Drawing on the experience of Scotland and Europe, the Commission could propose a more appropriate system for the 21st Century.

Chris Stanley JP
Member of the Magistrates’ Association Youth Courts Committee, writes in a personal capacity.
Member of the CSJ Youth Justice Working Group.
Trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation

July 2012