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Advocacy in the youth court: where expertise matters

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Laura Cooper of the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) offers her best practice advice for working with children in the criminal justice system, and provides details of upcoming youth court advocacy training delivered by the Law Society and the YJLC.

When it comes to criminal law, in my experience, the youth court is where having an expert lawyer can really make a difference – not just to the outcome of the case, but to a child’s future too.

A criminal record, which could have been avoided with the right representation, may blight a child’s life permanently. But if a child has had the chance to fully participate in the court process – because things have been explained in a way they can understand, and they feel they have been listened to – they are far more likely to engage with the Youth Offending Team and comply with a court order.

I am probably unusual among my criminal defence peers in that I have always sought out youth court work and have chosen to build my career in representing children. Some lawyers see youth court work as a stepping stone to Crown Court work, which is seen as more prestigious. Some solicitors try to avoid the youth court, usually because they aren’t familiar with its processes, and/or feel ill-equipped to act for young – and often challenging – clients.

laura cooper

Laura Cooper

Their caution is understandable. Research shows that children in the criminal justice system are more likely to have speech, language and communication needs, and learning difficulties such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many of the children in the youth justice system have had little or no education. Looked-after children are five times more likely to be cautioned or convicted than children in the general population.

Five tips for working with children

These are some of the things I have learned in my years of acting for children.

1. Make sure you know the law. It goes without saying that anyone setting foot in the youth court should have a good understanding of youth justice law. The youth court is fundamentally different from the adult court. There are different bail and remand decisions; jurisdiction decisions; anonymity protections; special measures regimes and standards; sentences and outcomes; and statutory bodies that work with children.

The aim of the youth justice system is to prevent reoffending. It is under a duty to consider the welfare of the child. Youth justice lawyers may need to remind the court of this on occasion.

2. It matters to children that you care. Children, far more than adults, want to know you believe them. Listen to what they have to say. Really listen. Disregard your usual strategies in court where long words and legal terminology may impress the court or an adult client. Use simple language, avoid legal jargon and ask open questions. Try to build a positive relationship with your client. If they think you are trying your best for them, they are likely to be more open and participate more effectively in the proceedings.

Remember to check your client has understood. Don’t just ask: ‘Do you understand?’. The answer will always be ‘yes’, even when they have not followed any of it. Instead, you need to ask your client to explain back to you what you have just told them, or chat to them and ask questions that will reassure you they understand your advice.

3. Find out about the child’s background. It is not uncommon for solicitors to have no information on the child they are about to represent in court. Find out as much as you can from the young person, their parent, carer, support worker and the youth offending team. Ask about their personal circumstances:

  • Who is in their family?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Are there any issues at home?
  • Do they have any medical conditions or diagnosis, including any mental illness?
  • Are they currently on any medication?
  • Are they at school or college? Do they get any extra help at school? Do they have a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care (EHC) plan?

These are just a few of the questions that will provide you with information that will ensure you can properly represent the child.

4. Explain what to expect when you go into court. Ideally, children and their supporting adults attending court for the first time should be shown around the court room when the court is not sitting, but this is not always possible in practice. Instead, you could talk the child through the layout of the youth court; explain who will be in court and where everyone will be sitting; and go through the sequence of events that will take place during proceedings.

It can also help to prepare the child for speaking in court. Unlike adult courts, most district judges and magistrates will want to have a conversation with a young defendant. It is the role of the lawyer to facilitate communication between the court and the child. I find it can be helpful to chat about this before going into court. You could even write down a child’s words and read them to the court.

5. Explain what will happen next. Children often leave court unsure of what has happened and what will happen to them next. Spend five minutes sitting with the child talking them through what has been decided, what is expected of them now, and ask if they have any questions or worries. It can be really important to be able to signpost support available locally in relation to issues that may be affecting them such as housing, education, employment, training and mental health support.

Training for solicitors

Youth justice work is challenging, but with the right expertise and training lawyers can ensure the best possible outcomes for clients. The Law Society is working to ensure lawyers doing this vital work receive the recognition and support they need, and has partnered with the Youth Justice Legal Centre to create a programme of training courses specially tailored for solicitors appearing in the youth court.

These all-day courses include training in youth court law and procedure and, uniquely, contributions from young people who have been through the criminal justice system, who can explain what it was like for them, and what they would have liked from their solicitor. The training is delivered by experienced youth justice lawyers, who will share their experiences and offer practical tips, alongside setting out the relevant statutory guidance, legislation and case law.

Topics covered will include: the rights of children at police stations; pre-court disposals; bail and remand; jurisdiction; effective participation and fitness to plead; adaptations to the trial process (including intermediaries; and youth sentencing). The course will also cover child development and how to communicate with young people with learning difficulties, mental illness, and communication needs that affect many children and young people in the criminal justice system.

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