Acting for children is anything but child’s play

Most lawyers will represent young people during their career, and it’s time our training recognised that fact, says Alex Temple.

My first ever court hearing was representing a child in a claim for damages. I was a paralegal working at a large commercial firm. Our client, who I will call Katie, had been injured during birth, causing neurological problems that would be with her for the rest of her life. By the time she was 10 years old, the severity of her injury had become clear and her mother brought a claim on her behalf. The hospital trust agreed to settle the case rather than go to court.

As Katie was under 18, the High Court had to approve the settlement as being in her interests, so I went to the hearing on my colleague’s instructions. I remember being nervous for myself, but excited to put all my new-found lawyering skills to good use. I met with Katie and her mum and immediately began addressing all my comments to her mum. I explained what would be happening and tried to ensure that she was comfortable. As a result, I felt confident that I had presented myself as a competent and caring legal professional. It was only much later that I realised I had utterly failed to engage with Katie, to calm her, to make sure she knew what to expect from the court and, most importantly, to ensure that her voice was heard.  To this day, I don’t know if she understood the terms of the settlement, what my role was, or how to raise any concerns about me or the way I was conducting her case.

At the time, I didn’t understand that I was doing anything wrong. The mum was technically our client and it felt more natural to address her, rather than her daughter. Three years later, I’m now half way through my training contract at Just for Kids Law (JfKL), a charity representing children and young people. During my training, I’ve been able to reflect on how much I’ve learnt, but also how much I previously missed the mark – and how I might have gone my whole career not knowing how much I didn’t know, had I not been able to train with specialists.

At JfKL, I regularly come into contact with vulnerable young people. I advise them, take instructions from them, and represent their interests in correspondence and hearings. JfKL is one of only a handful of organisations with a legal team that specialises in working with young people. Before coming to JfKL, I worked at different commercial firms, another charity and an advice clinic. None of these organisations specialised in representing young people, but every one of these jobs involved working with children to some extent.

My experience suggests that at times most lawyers will work with young people in their professional life: from those dealing with personal injury, to those administering trusts; and from those working in crime to those in immigration. It’s hard to think of any area of non-corporate work where lawyers can guarantee they will never come into contact with children and young people. Even in my first job in wills and probate, we worked with young people as beneficiaries, or who had come into a sum of money and were setting up a trust.

In my view, all private client lawyers should be equipped to deal with young clients, who will always need something extra from their legal representatives. Children and young people are vulnerable within the legal system. They are less likely to understand their rights or what they can expect from their lawyer. It is in recognition of this that some areas of law have detailed rules and regulations designed to ensure children are protected and that their lawyers are equipped with the skills needed to work with them.

The recent decision by the Bar Standards Board that barristers undertaking youth court work must demonstrate their expertise is welcome, but that still leaves young people elsewhere in the justice system with no guarantee that their representatives have been trained to promote their particular interests. Surely the time has come for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to be more prescriptive about the training would-be solicitors receive to ensure that the interests of all children involved in the justice system are better protected?

Currently, the SRA stipulates that students on the Legal Practice Course and those doing the Professional Skills Course learn when to file board company minutes with Companies House, what searches to complete on a buyer’s new home, and how to examine a witness in court. Yet, they will never be taught how a court approves a child’s settlement for damages, how to keep a child out of criminal courts through Youth Offending Teams, or even that courts are obliged to take children’s welfare as a priority. No providers of either the LPC or Professional Skills Course even offer the option to gain this knowledge through electives. Despite this, once the training contract is over, lawyers can go on to represent and advise children without further qualification, learning or review.

This is not to say that most lawyers don’t have excellent client care skills, or that they don’t attempt to meet each client’s particular needs. However, no amount of good intentions can make up for a gap in knowledge. I worked on a case for a 10-year-old last year who was accused of threatening a teacher with a knife. The teacher accused him of grabbing it from the kitchen when he was upset and waving it threateningly.

This was one of the first cases I had led on at JfKL and I was keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I sought advice from my supervisor before taking instructions. She was familiar with the circumstances of the matter and suggested that the client would find it difficult to tell me about what happened in sufficient detail because he might think I would tell him off, or tell his mother who would tell him off. She also explained that he would be susceptible to being led by my questions, even if I tried to avoid this happening. She told me that the boy would likely be anxious about being there at all and would say what he felt he needed to be able to go home. She talked me through the meeting. When it came to getting the key facts we decided that the best way to work with him was to role play. He mimed how he held the knife, using exaggerated facial expressions to show me how he was feeling at the time and by the end of the meeting he was contributing more detailed information unprompted.

By the time of the school’s exclusion panel, the boy was confident enough to be able to give me instructions during the meeting to help answer questions. This was a very positive step and it meant that he had a voice. If he’d been represented by the old me, I fear he would not have felt fully involved in the hearing.

Working with children is more universal in the world of law than working with house buyers, boards of directors or accountants. Yet it’s children who slip between the gaps. Few parents would be happy to allow their child to be treated by a doctor who didn’t understand how children differ from adults. Why should this be acceptable from their lawyers?

My experience convinces me that all lawyers should be given a basic understanding of how to represent children and young people as part of their compulsory training – or at least be taught that  there is something to learn, so they can seek guidance when needed. After all, if we want to see a culture change, it must start with the way we learn.


Alex Temple is a trainee solicitor at Just for Kids Law and Justice First Fellow.

 

Alex Temple

About Alex Temple

Alex is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at the youth justice and children's rights charity Just for Kids Law. He is due to qualify in February 2019

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