Adult court trials harm children, says QC

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The Independent Online

The Old Bailey and other adult courts in England and Wales are ill-equipped for trying children charged with serious crimes, the new leader of the body representing criminal barristers has warned.

In a call for a wide-ranging shake-up of the treatment of young people in the criminal justice system, Sally O'Neill QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said scores of children, some as young as 10, face trial in adult courts each year.

Many are cleared of any wrongdoing but their experience of the adult criminal justice system can cause irreparable harm while they are growing up. Those convicted can find the experience undermines their chances of rehabilitation.

"At a time of heightened public concern over youth crime, we need to look again at the way in which the system treats witnesses, victims and defendants, an increasing number of whom are not even teenagers," said Ms O'Neill, who today takes over as the leader of 4,000 prosecution and defence barristers in England and Wales.

Yesterday it emerged that almost 3,000 crimes were committed last year where the suspect was too young to be prosecuted.

Figures obtained by the BBC, under the Freedom of Information Act, show ed there were about 1,300 incidents of criminal damage and arson, and over 60 sex offences where suspects were under-10s in England and Wales. The report immediately led to calls for the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility.

But Ms O'Neill said: "At just 10, we already have a very low age of criminal responsibility in this country. What flows from arrest, interview and the trial process, however, is often poorly adapted to the immaturity of those very young people caught up in the system."

The majority of offences concerning children are tried in the Youth Courts but serious cases, such as murder, or where an adult is the co-defendant, are sent to the Crown Court.

Ms O'Neill, who was involved in a case at the Old Bailey this year in which seven children accused of murder were all acquitted, said that special courts should be used to try children accused of very serious offences.

Although new procedures are in place to protect children from the formality of a criminal trial in an adult court, Ms O'Neill said it was not always possible to follow them.

She said: "In one [case] this year, seven young defendants were supposed to sit in the well of the court accompanied by a parent. But because there was not enough room they had to sit in the dock on their own."

On Friday, five boys were convicted at the Old Bailey of killing a father as he played cricket with his son.

During the trial, the judge hearing the case was forced to order the parents to keep the five boys under control after complaints from court staff about their behaviour.

Judge Warwick McKinnon said: "It has been brought to my attention that the defendants are wandering around unaccompanied and conducting themselves in such a way that staff members are worried that they may well get up to mischief."

Two of them had been seen hanging out of windows, he said.

Ms O'Neill acknowledges that the special measures used to secure the best evidence from young witnesses and to protect them before, after and during the trial itself, have improved considerably the way in which young witnesses are treated during the trial.

Last night the Ministry of Justice said that those under the age of 18 are only tried in Crown Courts in exceptional cases where the offence is so serious that the sentencing powers of Youth Courts would be insufficient.

A ministry spokeswoman said: "These are generally cases where, if an adult was found guilty of the offence, they would be liable to receive a sentence in excess of 14 years. This could include offences such as murder, manslaughter, possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life, wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm and rape. Clearly in these circumstances the maximum sentence that could be handed down by a Youth Court, a two-year detention and training order, would be inadequate."

"When a person under 18 is tried at a Crown Court, special provisions are made to make the proceedings less intimidating. For example, gowns and wigs are not worn, frequent breaks are taken and the defendant is allowed to have a parent in the dock with them."