Vulnerable children are not impressed by barristers’ textbooks

Working in the youth courts is not just a stepping stone in a fledgling career, Kate Aubrey-Johnson writes

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May 12, 2017
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Like so many pupil criminal law barristers, I was eager to get “on my feet” at the start of my career. To stand up in court, use the legal analysis and advocacy skills I had spent several years honing and achieve justice for my clients.

For much of the first few months, I represented teenagers in Stratford youth court, where the majority of my clients were black and Asian boys. Many were no longer in mainstream education and the lucky ones were learning vocational skills or in pupil referral units.

I knew next to nothing about education law, but it seemed to me that the greatest prospect of stopping these kids wandering around committing offences was to get them back into school. Many children in the criminal justice system have been out of school for long periods; often they have the reading and literacy levels of much younger children. Many of the teenagers I represented had recognised special education needs that meant they were given additional help in school to help them take part in lessons.

Yet the courts were invariably resistant to arguments that they were unable to effectively participate in adversarial court proceedings, and that they needed modifications or adaptations to the court process. I learnt many things in those first few months that they don’t teach in bar school. That no child or young person is going to open up to their lawyer unless they trust you, that they need to know you are on their side, that carrying around Archbold was not going to impress them.

But what mattered more was finding out about their backgrounds, spending enough time with them to discover if they were autistic, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or how their family circumstances were affecting them. Raising arguments with the Crown Prosecution Service about a defendant’s background circumstances could lead to cases being discontinued or cases being diverted. All of this depended on building a strong rapport with the young people and ascertaining important background information.

Fifteen years on, not enough has changed. Children are still being represented in criminal courts across the country by lawyers who have little or no training in youth justice law. But beneath the surface, a quiet revolution is taking place. All the main legal professional bodies – the Criminal Bar Association, the Bar Standards Board, The Law Society, Solicitors Regulation Authority, and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives – now recognise that youth advocates should be specially trained and equipped with the communication skills they need to engage with vulnerable young people, and are taking steps to achieve this for their members.

These are changes which would have been unthinkable when the Youth Justice Legal Centre was founded three years ago. But there is still a mountain to climb, but the days when junior barristers were expected to bluff their way through youth court work before moving to other “more serious” crown court work will soon be behind us.

Kate Aubrey-Johnson is a barrister and mediator, who is the director of the Youth Justice Legal Centre, which was founded by Just for Kids Law; the centre is holding is first youth justice summit in London today

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