Youth court advocacy research released

Youth court advocacy research released

Major new report highlights mixed advocacy standards in youth court proceedings

19 November 2015Sam Younger, CILEx Regulation Board Chair

A new, independent report commissioned by CILEx Regulation and the Bar Standards Board (BSB), and produced by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London, has revealed variable advocacy standards amongst lawyers acting in youth court proceedings.

The Youth Proceedings Advocacy Review report, published today as a result of extensive research, highlights the damaging effects that poor advocacy has on access to justice for young and often very vulnerable offenders, and their perceptions of the system in general.

Whilst recognising there were examples of good practice amongst advocates appearing in youth court proceedings, the overriding view of those who participated within the research was that standards of advocacy were not at the level that the public should expect.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Quality of advocacy in youth proceedings is regarded as highly variable;
  • A lack of specialist knowledge amongst some advocates of the statutory framework for dealing with young people and young offenders;
  • Mixed ability amongst advocates to communicate clearly and appropriately with the young people whom they are representing;
  • A lack of specialist training for advocates undertaking work in youth court proceedings.

The report also makes recommendations that go beyond improving the quality of advocacy. Concerns with the wider nature of the youth justice system are highlighted. For example:

  • The highly formal nature of court proceedings and their adversarial nature can impede effective participation by young people;
  • Time pressures linked to legal aid reforms can lead to an emphasis on “swift justice” which in turn could undermine genuine justice;
  • The legal profession has a tendency to undervalue the important work undertaken in youth court proceedings – for example, by seeing it as a place where young lawyers can cut their teeth, rather than a place where serious cases are often heard.

CILEx Regulation Chair Sam Younger strongly supported the call for broad-based reforms to improve outcomes for young people – defendants, witnesses and victims – caught up in the youth courts.

“The research shows advocates are working in an imperfect environment. How the improvements to the infrastructure around youth court proceedings can be achieved is for others to address, particularly the Ministry of Justice. For our part, we accept that we need to ensure CILEx advocates have the right training and the resources for professional development they need to support the Youth Court and work effectively with all young people caught up in criminal proceedings.

“CILEx advocates specialising in criminal work have substantial experience in youth court proceedings by the time they qualify, but the research shows we need to do more as a regulator to ensure they can achieve the best possible outcomes for the young people they represent.”

BSB Chair Sir Andrew Burns said: “This is an important piece of insight into the current state of justice in youth court proceedings. As a regulator acting in the public interest, it is our duty to act on these findings and this is precisely what we intend to do in relation to the recommendations that fall under our regulatory remit. We have accepted in principle the recommendations set out in the report and will now focus on how we can improve standards of advocacy amongst barristers working with young offenders. Of course, we will need to do this alongside our counterparts regulating other parts of the legal profession.

“However, because this report also highlights systemic problems with the way in which youth justice is administered, the BSB calls for urgent collaboration between all parties including the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board. It is our view that only by working together can we successfully address the serious issues highlighted in the report.”

The BSB and CILEx Regulation would also like to express their thanks to Ali Wigzell, Amy Kirby and Jessica Jacobson from ICPR, who undertook the research and wrote the report.

The authors said: “Our research found that the quality of advocacy in youth proceedings is very mixed, and that most advocates practising in the Youth Court lack specialist training for this role. It is also clear that there are many aspects of court culture and the wider youth justice system which hamper the work of advocates - including the low status of the Youth Court, and the formality and complexity of language used at court.”

Commenting on the report from a youth justice perspective, Director of the Youth Justice Legal Centre and youth justice barrister at Just for Kids Law, Kate Aubrey-Johnson said: “This report highlights the shocking way children are being failed by the justice system, and why youth justice needs to be recognised as a specialism.

“All the evidence shows that children in court are exceptionally vulnerable: a third have an identified special educational needs and a similar number suffer mental illness.

“Just for Kids Law has long argued that it cannot be right for young people to be represented by the least experienced advocates, who through no fault of their own are ill-equipped to deal with the extra demands that acting for this acutely vulnerable group places on them.”

The Youth Proceedings Advocacy Review report is available here.