Troubled young defendants are still being let down
Those working in the Youth Court need proper funding and specialist training, Angela Rafferty writes
Representing young people and children accused of criminal offences is difficult. Specialist legal knowledge and practical expertise are required. Many serious cases are heard in the Youth Court, including trials for sexual offences and rape. In the Crown Court those under 16 can often face jury trials.
The Sentencing Council has recently published updated guidelines for judges in this area that come into force from June 1. The guidance recognises the difficulties many young people and children who offend have: problems from living in care to the deleterious effects of neglect and domestic violence.
The Youth Court lacks the prestige of the Crown Court and the advocates who attend on both sides are often newly qualified, underpaid and inexperienced. In the Crown Court young defendants must cope with the intimidating surroundings and alienating legal procedures.
There are many deeply committed and talented junior barristers who conduct Youth Court work to a high standard. Some notable solicitor-advocates have also spent years in this field. However, it remains an area where undertraining and underfunding are problems. Recent Bar Standards Board research found that poor advocacy in the Youth Court led to serious consequences for young people. Steps have been taken to set out an approach based on competency which advocates appearing in the Youth Court are encouraged to follow.
Guidance is given as to how good advocacy can be achieved and poor performance identified. The Inns of Court College of Advocacy recently launched online education material for barristers working in youth justice. The Youth Justice Legal Centre has been set up by the charity Just for Kids Law to provide legally accurate information about youth justice law. However, we must go further.
Raising the status of Youth Court work and the representation of the young is a priority for the Criminal Bar Association. The association aims to support junior members in doing this work and inform and educate more senior barristers dealing with young people.
It has formed a working group on youth justice, which is collaborating with specialists in the field. At a recent youth justice summit, I chaired a debate on advocacy for the young, where it was decided that more focus is needed to ensure this area is properly funded and that those who represent young people have specialist training.
This is an area where the skills of the Bar in presentation and legal knowledge should be put to good use. This will require judges who sit on the more serious cases to allow funding for counsel in the Youth Court. It will also require education across the professions to ensure that the quality of advocacy is high.
Angela Rafferty, QC, is the deputy chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association and a tenant at Red Lion Chambers in London