Mandatory specialist training for criminal lawyers appearing in the Youth Court and a review of the relatively low fees they receive are among the recommendations of a government-commissioned report on youth justice published today.

The Ministry of Justice has responded cautiously to those proposals, however, saying only that it will ‘give consideration as to whether there should be further assistance’ available to young people in court. Its 35-page response says nothing about fees, with media coverage focusing mainly on plans for new secure schools trailed over the weekend. 

The report, by child behavioural expert Charlie Taylor, was commissioned by former lord chancellor Michael Gove in September 2015.

Magistrates and members of the CPS appearing in the Youth Court are required to be specially trained to undertake these roles, the report notes, but defence lawyers are not. This problem is ‘compounded’ by the lower fees paid to lawyers in the Youth Court than they would receive for cases involving adults in the Crown court.

Taylor states: ‘During the review I have been frequently told by magistrates, district judges and lawyers that the quality of legal representation in the Youth Court is often very poor. The Youth Court tries more serious cases than the adult magistrates’ court because it has greater sentencing powers, yet the appearance fees for lawyers in the Youth Court are similar to those in the adult magistrates’ court (which can only sentence to up to six months in custody).

’This is not fair because it means that children often receive poorer legal representation in the hands of inexperienced junior barristers or solicitors. For example, advocates would be paid approximately £500 for a two-day robbery trial in the Youth Court compared with £1,600 were the offender an adult and tried in the Crown court.’

He adds: ‘I believe there is a strong case for insisting that all lawyers appearing in the Youth Court are specifically trained. I am also extremely concerned that children, in what are often complex and challenging cases, should be any less well represented [than equivalent adults]. I therefore recommend that the [MoJ] reviews the fee structure of cases heard in the Youth Court in order to raise their status and improve the quality of legal representation for children, and when this is complete, that the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority should introduce mandatory training for all lawyers appearing the Youth Court.’

In calling for mandatory training, Taylor echoes a report published in 2014 by a cross-party group of MPs and peers calling for urgent reforms to youth justice.

Taylor also investigated access to legal advice at the pre-charge stage, and proposes that children should not be required to make a decision about seeing a solicitor at that point. Instead, there should be a presumption that a solicitor is called and legal advice is provided, unless the child expressly requests otherwise.

As with adults, he adds, there should also be a presumption of releasing a child, and organising a voluntary attendance interview or bail with a pre-arranged interview time, if a solicitor cannot attend within two hours of a child being arrested.

Research suggests that 43% of children who go on to be charged do not ask to see a solicitor, and that 10-13-year-olds are the least likely to do so.

Around 40,000 children were dealt with in the criminal courts in 2015, down 69% since 2007.

Former justice minister Lord McNally, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said: ’I welcome the publication of Charlie Taylor’s report and the government’s response. Taken together, they offer a clear road-map for developing the future of youth justice services. Both documents seek to build on the success of the Youth Justice Board and its Youth Offending Teams over the last sixteen years.

’I also welcome the government’s expressed desire to continue to use the experience and expertise within the YJB and YOTs to carry the strategy forward.’

Law Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘The Law Society welcomes this report and we would support any proposal to review the fees for solicitors who undertake this difficult and challenging work. It is essential that legal representation in the youth court is recognised as a specialised area of work with appropriate remuneration. Equally, it is crucial those representing these extremely vulnerable clients are equipped with the appropriate skills and we have developed structured training tailored for members who practise in the youth court. Solicitors have undertaken the majority of advocacy in the youth court since it was established and have done so in circumstances where this area of law has become increasingly complex.’

An SRA spokesperson said: ’We are pleased the MoJ has welcomed the steps we have already taken to provide support to solicitors practising in the youth courts through our package of support. As the Taylor Review states, it is important that young people involved in the criminal justice system have access to good quality legal representation.

;All solicitors have a responsibility to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. We will continue to monitor and review this area of practice.’