The profession must resolve the inconsistency in training requirements for youth proceedings.
Akey question asked by the parliamentarians’ inquiry into the operation and effectiveness of youth proceedings was: ‘What is the competence of practitioners in youth proceedings?’
This inquiry was launched last September under my chairmanship, together with a panel of MPs and peers from all parties and none. It has spent the last nine months considering written and oral evidence on this issue and a range of others, including the appropriateness of Crown court for children and whether the youth court is meeting its principal aim of preventing offending. Last week the inquiry’s findings and recommendations were published.
There is significant inconsistency in training requirements in youth proceedings. Magistrates and district judges in the youth court must complete specialist youth justice training before they are allowed to practise. While the Crown Prosecution Service does have youth specialist prosecutors, these tend to be reserved for trials – and it is non-youth specialist associate prosecutors who tend to work on the majority of youth cases. There is a complete absence of training requirements for lawyers representing child defendants or for Crown court judges presiding.
This is markedly out of kilter with other parts of the criminal court system. Lawyers representing children in the family court are specially trained and accredited to do so. Crown court judges must undertake additional training before they can preside over sex offence cases. Child defendants often share similar vulnerabilities – 56% of children in custody have had involvement with children’s social services – and many will have been victims of physical and sexual abuse – so why are there not the same training expectations of practitioners in youth proceedings?
Some practitioners in youth proceedings have pursued youth specialist training and expertise. Yet this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The absence of training requirements is compounded by the use of the youth court as a place for junior advocates to ‘cut their teeth’. This is so because it is viewed as a less intimidating environment; as a closed court, their conduct cannot be assessed by peers and their child clients are perceived as unlikely to recognise poor practice. Furthermore, we were told that there is a mistaken belief that youth court law is less complex than that in adult courts.
The implication of treating the youth court as a training ground is that any mistakes are inconsequential. Yet the opposite is true.
The adverse effects of limited youth specialisation are manifold. With regard to prosecutors, we heard that delays to cases are caused by associate prosecutors having to refer decisions back to youth specialists. Inadequately trained defence practitioners can leave children ‘ill-advised and poorly defended’. Without an understanding of the typically complex needs of children who offend, Crown court judges are more likely to conduct cases without the recommended modifications, such as breaks and the use of simple language, which may aid children’s participation.
As a case in point, one 17-year-old told us of his Crown court hearing that ‘they talk a lot of Latin’. We received arguments too regarding the need for strengthening the training of magistrates and district judges in youth proceedings so that they are better able to recognise and respond to difficulties. Evidence suggests that there is now a greater concentration of children with complex needs in the youth justice system, further emphasising the need for specialism.
We have accordingly recommended that the Bar Standards Board, Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives introduce a requirement for all legal practitioners representing children in the police station and practising in youth proceedings to be accredited to do so.
We also want to see a training requirement for Crown court judges presiding over youth cases and additional training for youth magistrates and district judges.
Lord Carlile is a Liberal Democrat peer