Mandatory specialist training for criminal lawyers working with children should be introduced ‘without delay’, a damning report from MPs and peers on the failings of the youth justice system says today.
The report highlights a lack of specialist professionals with many practitioners, including lawyers and judges, insufficiently trained to recognise young offenders’ needs, and lacking knowledge specific to young defendants and youth court law.
The youth court, it says, is often used as a place for junior legal practitioners to ‘cut their teeth’, with youth court law mistakenly perceived as less complex and important than adult court law. This results in poor representation, needs not being identified and inappropriate sentences being advocated.
The reports calls on the three main legal regulators to introduce ‘without delay’ a requirement for all legal practitioners representing children at the police station and practising in youth proceedings to be accredited to do so.
For new entrants into youth proceedings, this would comprise an initial spell of a minimum of ten hours of continuing professional development-accredited youth training and an annual two-hour refresher.
Training should cover youth court law, the needs of child defendants (including mental health issues, speech, language and communication needs, welfare issues and child development), effective participation to enable defendants to participate fully and fairly in courtroom proceedings, and jurisdiction and practice directions.
It should also cover the impact of interventions, including visits to youth custodial institutions and community services at least twice a year, the report says.
The report followed an enquiry chaired by barrister and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile which was launched amid concerns that criminal and youth courts do not prevent youth reoffending and have inadequate regard to the welfare of the child.
Many respondents were critical of the inconsistency in training requirements for court practitioners within the youth court, and in comparison to related jurisdictions.
While magistrates and district judges are required to be specially trained, legal practitioners are not.
Charity Just for Kids Law argued that this contrasts sharply with the Family Court, in which all legal practitioners are trained in family law and procedure, and there is additional training for solicitors representing children, who must be accredited to operate in the court.
Given that the children appearing in the youth court and Family Court share many of the same needs, it said it is incongruous that the training requirements differ so severely.
Practice in England and Wales is also behind that of the US, where criminal lawyers specialise in representing children and adhere to best practice standards.
With regard to the Crown Court, the report said it is ‘anomalous’ that judges are required to undertake specialist training to preside over sex offence cases, but there is no such requirement in relation to their involvement in youth cases, involving child defendants who often have complex needs.
Most respondents, including the Law Society, recommended that youth specialist training should be made obligatory for all those practising in youth proceedings
The Society told the enquiry: ‘In our view, there does need to be some form of accreditation by way of either experience and or qualifications in welfare-based legal environments which can be objectively measured and must be maintained by CPD or experience.’
Crown Court appearances for under-18s, it said, should be the ‘rare exception’, Instead there should be a clear presumption in law that all child defendants are dealt with in the youth court.
The ‘intimidating nature’ of the Crown Court is ‘inappropriate’ for children and prevents effective sentencing and participation. Ultimately, it contravenes the rights of children to a fair trial, it said.
It also recommends that children who have committed non-serious and non-violent offences, who have stopped offending, should have their criminal record expunged when they turn 18.
Carlile said good practice has developed over the years in relation to crime committed by children, but the youth justice system is ‘far from being fit for purpose’.
‘Too often children are being left to flounder in court with little understanding of what is happening to them,’ he said.