Poor quality advocacy is endangering youth justice

Round stamp with text: QualityAccess to justice for young and vulnerable offenders is being endangered by variable advocacy standards amongst lawyers acting in youth court proceedings, a new report claims.

The Youth Proceedings Advocacy Review report, commissioned by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and CILEx Regulation, found that standards of advocacy of lawyers appearing in youth court proceedings were not at the level that the public should expect. The study highlighted the variable quality of representation and mixed ability of advocates to communicate with the young people that they were acting on behalf of.

The study also reported a troubling lack of specialist knowledge amongst some advocates about the statutory framework for dealing with young people and young offenders linked to a lack of specialist training.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Kate Aubrey-Johnson, director of the Youth Justice Legal Centre and a barrister at Just for Kids Law, said that youth advocates were inexperienced ‘through no fault of their own’ in dealing with the extra demands of acting for young people in court. ‘All the evidence shows that children in court are exceptionally vulnerable: a third have an identified special education need and a similar number suffer mental illness. This report highlights the shocking way children are being failed by the justice system, and why youth justice needs to be recognised as a specialism.’

Sam Younger, chair of CILEx Regulation, which regulates members of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), echoed this sentiment, saying: ‘The research shows advocates are working in an imperfect environment.’ While he accepted that CILEx had a role to play in ensuring that CILEx advocates have the right training and resources to support the Youth Court and youth clients, he said that questions about improvements to the infrastructure around youth court proceedings were for others to address – ‘particularly the Ministry of Justice.’

Sir Andrew Burns, chair of the Bar Standards Board said that the report ‘highlights systemic problems with the way in which youth justice is administered’ and called for ‘urgent collaboration’ between all parties including the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board. ‘…Only by working together can we successfully address the serious issues highlighted in the report.’

The report makes a number of recommendations for improving not only the quality of advocacy but the youth justice system more broadly. One area which was highlighted for review was court culture; it is thought that the highly formal nature of court proceedings and the complexity of language used in court can impede effective participation by young people. Another concern was the impact of time pressures on youth justice cases linked to legal aid reforms; this is thought to lead to an emphasis on ‘swift justice’ which could undermine genuine justice.

About Lucie Boase

Lucie is a paralegal specialising in actions against the police. She is Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) committee member and co-ordinates YLAL South West

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