A prison reform charity has drafted guidance to help defence lawyers keep unsentenced children out of prison as MPs prepare to quiz the Ministry of Justice on the effect of the coronavirus on the youth justice system.

The Howard League for Penal Reform says one in three children in prison in England and Wales are held on remand. Around half of the young prison population are black, Asian or minority ethnic.

The charity has worked with Garden Court Chambers on guidance to help lawyers make effective bail applications for children during the pandemic.

The guidance says: ‘Children’s experience in custody during the Covid-19 pandemic is particularly difficult. The regime in prisons has been severely restricted, with most children being placed in prolonged solitary confinement. There are no face-to-face visits, virtually no face-to-face education and no therapy. Children are experiencing particular difficulties in accessing the support they need to plan for release.

'Defence advocates should therefore do all they can to ensure children are not remanded to custody at this time by ensuring that the courts apply anxious scrutiny to all decisions concerning bail, that all steps are taken to ensure appropriate bail packages are in place and bail applications are renewed wherever possible in line with the distinct legal duties that apply to children in contact with the criminal justice system.’

Lawyers are told that the objection to bail that a child will commit further offences is likely to be weaker because there will be less opportunity to offend while lockdown restrictions are in place. If bail is refused, even where conditions for remand to youth detention accommodation are met, lawyers should argue that the secure estate will not meet children’s welfare needs during the pandemic. The guidance says most children are spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells and there is insufficient education or training provision.

Tomorrow the House of Commons justice select committee will quiz justice minister Lucy Frazer QC on the impact of Covid-19 on youth courts, the youth secure estate and children under supervision of youth offending teams.

Frazer is one of nine people who will appear before the committee tomorrow. Peter Clarke, chief inspector of prisons, Keith Fraser, chair of the Youth Justice Board, and Linda Logan, chair of the youth committee for the Magistrates’ Association, will also give evidence.