Youth courts are failing children with inexperienced lawyers treating them as uncomplicated


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The Independent Online

Youth courts are failing vulnerable children because they attract poorly trained, less experienced lawyers who wrongly believe that children’s cases are less complex than adult law, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has found.

The independent parliamentarians' inquiry, chaired by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, concluded there is a shortage of specialist professionals trained to work in the youth justice system. Many lawyers and judges have not been trained to understand children’s needs and often lack knowledge of youth court law.

The youth court is often mistakenly used as a place for junior lawyers to “cut their teeth”, resulting in children being poorly represented in court and inappropriate sentences being proposed.

Youth courts also fail to identify the complex social, communication and mental health problems facing child offenders and fail to reduce reoffending.

Children often did not understand what was happening to them in court but inexperienced lawyers often failed to appreciate this.

Lord Carlile highlighted a case of a child asked in court if he “felt remorse”. The child replied “no”, but when questioned later by his lawyer the boy had asked the meaning of “remorse”.

The report said: “This is a small illustration of how honourable lawyers and judiciary, doing their best, fail to engage effectively with the person before them.”

The inquiry also concluded that the Crown Court was inappropriate for children and that the "intimidating nature" of the court and lack of youth expertise was stopping effective sentencing and could contravene the rights of children to a fair trial.

Lord Carlile said: "Although much good practice has developed over the years in relation to crime committed by children, we found that the youth justice system is far from being fit for purpose. Too often children are being left to flounder in court with little understanding of what is happening to them.

"Nowhere is this disengagement and lack of comprehension more obvious than in the Crown Court. Even with determined special measures to make the court more child-friendly, there is strong evidence that an appearance in the Crown Court for a child is a negative and terrifying experience.

"Where possible, children should not be taken before a court, and Crown Court appearances for under-18s should be the rare exception."

The inquiry also recommended that children who commit minor non-violent offences should have their criminal records wiped clean when they turn 18.

The inquiry concluded that criminal records were "destructive" because they prevented children from escaping their criminal pasts.

The recommendation comes after five Supreme Court justices concluded a man's right to private life was breached when he was forced to reveal a childhood police caution for bicycle theft to a prospective employer.

Having a criminal record can blight a young person’s education, employment and rehabilitation prospects, the report concluded.

But children often fail to understand that some out-of-court disposals, such as community resolutions, youth cautions and youth conditional cautions, can still show up on criminal record checks, the report found.