‘Oliver tried to reply but his tongue failed him. He was deadly pale, and the whole place seemed turning round and round.’ (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist)

In a large number of magistrates’ courts, sometimes in a far corner, a basement, or at the top of a flight of stairs away from the other courts, you will find the youth court. The reason for this physical distance is to mark a clear distinction between the youth court and the magistrates’ court. However, it is also a powerful metaphor for the way in which youth justice often seems to be forgotten, both in the justice system overall and in discussions about legal aid.

In the year ending March 2018, there were 14,400 first-time entrants to our youth justice system. The impact on those 10 to 17 year olds cannot be understated. This will be an individual’s first experience of the justice system and, the system hopes, their last. However, statistics suggest that 73% of those against whom a finding of guilt has been made in the youth court will go on to reoffend.

The system, overseen by the Youth Justice Board, has six key objectives. The first of these is the swift administration of justice. For many practitioners in youth courts across the country, the fact that the swift administration of justice is the first listed objective will seem somewhat ironic.

It is not uncommon for a barrister to prepare a youth court trial and arrive at court, only to find that the case has been discontinued at the last minute. It is not unusual for a young person’s legal team to draft submissions to the prosecution which explain why the case should not be prosecuted but often no one has read the submissions until the eve of the hearing, when it is too late for the points to be addressed. Bringing a young person to court when they have no reason to be there is inexcusable. As well as the wasted preparation, a parent often loses a day of work, and the impact on the young person (from both an educational and welfare perspective) is unacceptable. These injustices could be avoided in a properly funded system.

As in the adult system, disclosure is often late and frequently presented on the morning of the trial. This often results in delays, and witnesses attending court unnecessarily. It is unfair to expect a vulnerable young person to digest lengthy CCTV footage, for example, on the morning of the trial, when early disclosure would have permitted this to be done with more time and in a less stressful environment.

In addition, the increased use of video link in the youth court is a further, underestimated threat to justice. For young people, custody should be a last resort, but this principle is undermined when a youth appears via video link for their sentencing hearing. It contradicts the safeguards usually put in place to ensure the effective participation of a young defendant, such as seating them next to their advocate so that matters can be explained to them. It is hard to believe that increasing the use of video link is motivated by anything other than a desire to save costs. It seems that in a crippled system, costs come first, and the principles of justice must play a secondary role. We cannot allow this to continue.

Of course the treatment of young people at court is better than the portrayal in Oliver Twist (illustrated above). But that is a low bar. The impact of court proceedings on vulnerable young people cannot be underestimated. The lack of regard for young people when allocating legal aid rates undermines the system’s noble objectives and encourages further disastrous cost cutting initiatives. The system is still turning ‘round and round’, but without proper fees, and attention, it will spiral downward, and the youngest members of our society will suffer.

Joanne Kane has a wide-ranging practice in criminal law at Carmelite Chambers and regularly works in the youth, crown and magistrates’ courts. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Bar Council’s Justice Papers series.


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