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November 21, 2015

Do children in criminal courts get the defence they need?

The Youth Court is a hidden world, where most child crime cases are heard. The public are not admitted and even lawyers are not usually allowed to observe their colleagues’ cases. It is definitely right that the court should be closed, but there are downsides – the quality of advocacy by prosecution and defence is not subject to either public nor peer scrutiny.

A new report commissioned by the Bar Standards Board and CILEx lifts the lid on this hidden world and its slightly alarming. Lawyers and practitioners criticise lawyers for

1) lack of knowledge of youth justice law;“Some advocates haven’t got a clue what goes on in the Youth Court”

2) lack of skills to communicate well with child defendants and witnesses, particularly to cross examine: “In my second youth court trial, which … was a far more serious case, neither of my opponents had any idea of how to question children”

3) Lack of professionalism and passion: “They see the Youth Court as a sort of production line, factory, depersonalised system … everybody muddles through”

Its not all bad. Many advocates for children are committed, empathetic and knowledgeable. But it is untenable to have a system where a third of lawyers working in the youth court say they are not interested in continuing to practice there. Presumably these lawyers are using it as a training ground for adult work which pays better. Or maybe they just don’t like defending children. Either way, something is wrong with the provision of advocates for children, particularly since few children are going to be able to quality assess their prospective lawyer.

The recommendations of the report are spot on, that we need an accreditation system for lawyers who defend children, to ensure that they have the specialist legal knowledge and are committed to continuing their learning.  The problem with implementing this will be, as ever, lack of money and resistance to more regulation.  The running and enforcement of any licensing system costs money, both for those running it and those who have to be licensed.  Already lawyers complain that youth defence work is underpaid. So who will pay for the extra training lawyers need to defend children well?  Lets hope disputes about money don’t lead to this issue being kicked into the long grass.