The voices of young adult defendants


In the justice system, public trust is not just a nice-to-have. It is the basis of the system’s legitimacy and a foundation stone for people’s compliance with the law. It has been shown that in large part this trust comes from the basic components of procedural fairness: that people understand the process; feel they have been treated with respect; and have had their voices heard. Issues highlighted in the Lammy Review have added to the pressure on the justice system to ensure it is engaged with communities, and demonstrating transparency and accountability.

As recognised by the Justice Select Committee inquiry into young adult offenders, there is strong evidence from a range of research disciplines that young adults are a distinct group with needs that are different both from children under 18 and adults older than 25.  While some aspects of justice system practice in England and Wales have done so, allocation within the court system continues to be driven purely by chronological age.

We spoke to 21 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 with recent experience of attending magistrates’ court. The aim was to learn about how they experienced court: their feelings and
understanding of the process, as well as how they could be involved in reimagining it where necessary.


In working with five magistrate court areas, we developed a model of procedural fairness in court that could be tested and evaluated to improve these experiences. The model includes the following core features:

  • Providing better information to defendants before attending court, including preparing defendants for the opportunity for direct engagement with the bench;
  • Enhancing engagement during the hearing itself, for example, checking defendants’ understanding through the hearing and explaining the roles of those in the court room where appropriate;
  • Giving defendants an opportunity for direct engagement with the bench;
  • Following up after hearings to check understanding and next steps;
  • Supporting voluntary take-up of community services that are available locally to tackle wider needs that may be contributing to offending behaviour.


We recommend that the Ministry of Justice, HMCTS and HMPPS provide permission to the existing five local sites and new areas such as London who already wish to test out and evaluate this model of fairness in court.