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.

“They speak a different language”

Posted on 09 May in

Claire Ely

Our court system has its own sense of style, dark wood panelling, a golden crest, and the dock, its own set of rules, to bow or not bow, and even its own language, mitigation, adjournment and remand. For those who appear in court, the whole experience can feel not only intimidating but alien. Some will argue that that’s intentional, it should feel serious, formal, maybe so, but what it shouldn’t do is make you feel excluded from the process.

Despite previously having worked as a probation officer for years, managing a caseload of young adults, my work never touched upon how they experienced court, because I never asked. My focus after a court appearance was always on the sentence, potentially missing a wealth of information which ultimately will have affected their relationship with me and their motivation to comply with their sentence.

The quotes below are from six months research I carried speaking to young adults about their experience in magistrates’ court. Here is some of what they told me.

Court is really hard to follow.

The technical language and layout of the courtroom are barriers to understanding. One young person described it as though, “they speak a different language.” Another said several weeks after appearing in court, “I still don’t understand why I got this sentence now.” A simple request came from another, “explain what is happening. It could prevent me coming back.” When young adults had their sentences explained clearly, it affected how they perceived the whole process, “I did understand my sentence, … I was happy with it, it was very well thought out.”

They want to be heard.

Being expected to behave like an adult and take responsibility for your actions, while at the same time feeling disempowered when, “They don’t talk to you, they talk about you.” was a bone of contention for many. Others noted, “I just want them to understand my background.” One young woman felt so disengaged from the process she told me, “They could have just called me up on the phone to tell me what I’d got.” In contrast, one person had a much more positive experience, “this time, they listened to my experiences– it was fair.”
Respect matters.

As one young person put it, “if they [the judge] don’t care, why should we?” Those involved in delivering justice at court are clear that the institution’s formality is there to demand respect from defendants. But how can we expect this behaviour from defendants if it is not demonstrated to them in return? One young man’s perception of respect was that it is non-existent, “you don’t go to court to be respected.“ I found this particularly troubling.

Ultimately, these interviews revealed to me that while few talked about dissatisfaction with their sentences, all highlighted the importance of understanding the process more clearly, their wish to feel they were treated with respect, and their desire to have a meaningful voice. If the system is to retain its legitimacy, courts must sit up and listen. 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. All of which will lead to less reoffending and fewer victims.

You can read our report,  A fairer way: procedural fairness for young adults at court, can be read here.