Is it time for solicitors to recognise youth justice as a specialism?

Sarah Smith says the Law Society should follow the bar’s lead and recognise youth justice as a specialism

The Bar Standards Board has announced that later this year there will be compulsory registration of barristers working in the Youth Court, and in February they published their guidance document Youth Proceedings Competences. These changes are in response to the BSB and CILEx Regulation-commissioned report ‘The Youth Proceedings Advocacy Review’, which found that there is a lack of specialist training for Youth Court advocates and that advocacy was ‘highly variable’.

But what of solicitors? Is it time to recognise youth justice as a specialism?

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has responded by publishing on its website ‘a specialist support package for solicitors working in youth courts’. The focus is on recognising and responding to the particular vulnerabilities of children caught up in the criminal justice system and highlights the importance of working with other agencies. The accompanying notes point out that more than 60% of young people and children in the criminal justice system have significant speech, language, and communication difficulties.

The BSB report highlighted that, for the bar, the youth courts have often been viewed as a place where young advocates can learn their trade. In conversation with a fellow solicitor recently, it appears that this attitude was prevalent in our profession, too. He stated that when he first qualified he ‘was sent to the youth court as [he] was closer in age to the clients and might get on with them better’. More worryingly, he was told by his senior partner that, as it was a closed court, he ‘need not be embarrassed if [he] fluffed his lines’.

Hopefully we have now moved on from seeing the Youth Court as somewhere to send our most inexperienced advocates. The reality of the Youth Court today is that it is the venue for some of the most serious criminal trials, regularly hosting rape trials, and often involving vulnerable witnesses as well as defendants. The last few Youth Court trials I have been involved with all featured contested expert evidence; unusual legal argument and defendants with significant difficulties facing indictable-only charges.

As solicitors, our role is not confined to the courts. In March, the Law Society in conjunction with the Youth Justice Legal Centre promoted and hosted youth justice advocacy training, which focused on youth-specific criminal law from the police station to the youth court.

Dealing with under 18s at the police station can be especially fraught and frequently involves dealing with an anxious parent, too. Although the police should only use custody as a last resort (NPCC National Strategy for Police Custody), often custody centres can resemble rather disorderly youth clubs. Youth crime can be more visible than adult crime and police officers concerned with welfare issues may be more likely to arrest a child. Advising children is more complicated for a myriad of reasons. As an example, the availability of out-of-court disposals is much more technical for youths than adults. The Youth Justice Board states that out-of-court disposals should always be considered for youths for offences with a gravity score of three or below – this includes violent disorder; sexual assault and, if 15 or under, possession of a bladed article. This involves more input from the solicitor in making representations pre-charge and consideration of pressing for reviews post charge.

The principles of the youth justice system differ too: the principal aim is to prevent offending but there is also a duty to consider the welfare of the child. Keeping up with changes in youth justice can require some effort. The Sentencing Council’s definitive ‘Guideline Sentencing Children and Young People,’ effective from June 2017, will be difficult to miss but perhaps the potential impact on the use of intermediaries for youths following the case of Rashid [2017] EWCA Crim 2 may not be so obvious.

The Law Society could promote and recognise youth justice as a specialism. This certainly seems to be the way the BSB is moving. Law Society accreditation schemes are billed as ‘demonstrating expertise’. I certainly do not wish to be an advocate for any mandatory extra expense for criminal defence solicitors but for those that choose to focus on this area I would like to see some recognition. Family lawyers have a number of accreditation schemes which recognise the different aspects of the work of the family courts, but there is only one for criminal practitioners. The children law scheme is not mandatory but those who complete the process can confirm that they are specialists. I see a youth justice scheme and linked group as raising the profile of this work and enabling practitioners to share good practice, keep up to date, and to provide an even better service to their vulnerable clients.

The Youth Justice Legal Centre is holding its first ever summit on 12 May in central London (here). 

Sarah Smith

About Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is a criminal defence specialist and director at Tildens Ltd Brighton. She has an interest in youth justice

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