Serious shortcomings in the standards of advocacy in youth courts could result in poor and sometimes unlawful decision making by courts, a report commissioned by the bar regulator has found.
An independent report commissioned by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and CILEx Regulation says that despite good practice amongst some advocates in youth courts, standards are variable and sometimes poor.
The majority of those participating in the research, produced by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck College London, were concerned that advocacy was not up to standards.
Among the 215 advocates surveyed, many were critical of their peers' practice in youth court proceedings, which they warned could have far-reaching consequences for young defendants and for witness engagement as well as on outcomes.
Meanwhile 30 practitioners interviewed for the study, including magistrates and district judges, referred to serious shortcomings in practice among both barristers and solicitors.
The practitioners pained a picture of advocates as ‘inexperienced, poorly paid and whose work is often rushed or undertaken "on the hoof"'.
The research highlighted how the youth court is generally undervalued, and how it is treated as a ‘training ground’ for junior advocates.
A legal adviser said that many lawyers coming into court will just ‘pick up a book beforehand and then realise that they are a bit out of their depth’.
The report says there is a widely perceived ‘knowledge deficit’ with regards to youth justice law.
It said: ‘With regard to remand and sentencing decisions, interviewees informed us that advocates sometimes argued for disposals that were inappropriate in the circumstances or, in some cases, not even available in the court. This could result in poor and sometimes unlawful decision making by the court.’
Practitioners also gave several examples where young defendants were ‘unnecessarily distressed’ by an advocate's ill-founded suggestion that they might be sentenced to custody.
BSB chair Sir Andrew Burns said the regulator has accepted the recommendations set out in the report and will focus on how it can improve standards of youth advocacy. However he added that because the report highlights 'systemic problems' all parties including the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board need to collaborate. 'It is our view that only by working together can we successfully address the serious issues highlighted in the report.’