Laura Cooper explains why the Youth Justice Legal Centre is on a mission to win proper recognition for lawyers doing this essential work
When it comes to criminal law, in my experience, the youth court is where having an expert lawyer really can make a difference – not just to the outcome of the case, but also to a child’s future.
A criminal record, that could have been avoided with the right representation, may blight a child’s life permanently. If a child has had the chance to fully participate in the court process – because things have been explained in a way they can understand and they feel they have been listened to – they are far more likely they will go on to engage with the Youth Offending Team and comply with any court order.
I am probably unusual among my criminal defence peers in that I have always sought out youth court work and have chosen to build my career in representing children. Some lawyers see youth court work as a steppingstone to crown court work, which is seen as more prestigious. Some solicitors try to avoid the youth court because they aren’t familiar with its processes and they feel ill-equipped to act for young clients who are often challenging to deal with. Their caution is understandable. Research shows that children in the criminal justice system are more likely to have speech, language and communication needs, learning difficulties such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many of the children in the youth justice system have had little or no engagement in education. Looked after children are five times more likely to be cautioned or convicted than children in the general population.
These are some of the things I have learned in my years of acting for children:
- Make sure you know the law. It goes without saying that anyone setting foot in the youth court should have a good understanding of youth justice law. The youth court is fundamentally different from the adult court. There are different bail and remand decisions, different jurisdiction decisions, different anonymity protections, different special measures regimes and standards, different sentences and outcomes, and different statutory bodies that work with children.
The aim of the youth justice system is to prevent reoffending. It is under a duty to consider the welfare of the child. Youth justice lawyers may need to remind the court of this on occasion.
- It matters to children that you care. Children, far more than adults, want to know you believe them. Listen to what they have to say. Really listen. Disregard your usual strategies in court where long words and legal terminology might impress the court and impress an adult client. Use simple language, avoid legal jargon. Try to build a positive relationship with your client. If they think you are trying your best for them, they are likely to be more open and participate more effectively in the proceedings.
And remember to check your client has understood. Don’t just ask: ‘Do you understand?’ The answer will always be ‘yes’, even when they have not followed any of it. Instead, you need to ask your client to explain back to you what you have just told them, or chat to them and ask questions that will reassure you they understand your advice.
- Find out about the child’s background. It is not uncommon for solicitors to have no information on the child they are about to represent in court. Find out as much as you can from the young person, their parent, carer, support worker and the youth offending team. Ask about their personal circumstances. Who is in their family? Who do they live with? Are there any issues at home? Do they have any medical conditions or diagnosis, including any mental illness? Are they currently on any medication? Are they at school or college? Do they get any extra help at school? Do they have a statement of special educational needs or education, health and care (EHC) plan? These are just a few of the questions that will provide you with information that will ensure you can properly represent the child.
- Explain what to expect when you go into court. Ideally, children and their supporting adults attending court for the first time should be shown around the courtroom when the court is not sitting, but this is not always possible in practice. Instead, you could talk the child through the layout of the youth court; explain who will be in court and where everyone will be sitting; go through the sequence of events that will take place during proceedings. It can also help to prepare the child for speaking in court. Unlike adult courts, most district judges and magistrates will want to have a conversation with a young defendant. It is the role of the lawyer to facilitate communication between the court and the child. I find it can be helpful to chat about this before going into court. You could even write down a child’s words and read them to the court.
- Explain what will happen next. Children often leave court unsure of what has happened and what will happen to them next. Spend five minutes sitting with the child talking them through what has been decided, what is expected of them now, and ask if they have any questions or worries. It can be really important to be able to signpost support available locally in relation to issues that may be affecting them such as housing, education, employment, training and mental health support.
Youth justice work is challenging, but with the right expertise and training lawyers can ensure the best possible outcomes for clients. To this end, we have worked with the Law Society to develop a programme of one-day courses, specially tailored for solicitors appearing in the youth court (here).
But we want to go further. On 12 May, we are staging the first ever YJLC Youth Justice Summit, which will bring together leading practitioners in the field. The aim is to share knowledge and expertise, and for all of us to work towards ensuring lawyers doing this essential work are properly equipped and receive the status and recognition that they deserve. There will be practical workshops on how to do the work profitably and effectively, and updating lawyers on essential changes in the law covering anonymity, sexting, and much more. The summit is aimed at anyone who is – or wants to be – setting standards of excellence in youth court work. It will also see the presentation of the inaugural YJLC Youth Justice Champion award.
Laura Cooper has been a solicitor advocate since 2011. She is a lawyer at the Youth Justice Legal Centre where she runs a specialist advice line on youth justice law. She is also a part-time practising solicitor advocate at MK Law Solicitors.