How to improve young adults’ experience at court

Phil Bowen

In last week’s Government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report on young adults, there was a slight touch of ‘leave us alone, we are already doing it’ annoyance. What the response clearly showed is that there is indeed lots of activity and a good deal of affirmative rhetoric (and I don’t mean that pejoratively). In short, a lot of answers to the question of what are you going to do about young adults.

But I sometimes wonder, in these back and forths between Government and Committees, whether a focus on the ‘what’ questions crowd out some of the more interesting questions about ‘how’. There is now extensive research that  shows that how supervision and interventions are delivered is just as, if not more, important than what the interventions are. Similarly, procedural fairness research and practice focuses much more on how people feel they are treated, than on what those interventions and decisions are.  One of the crucial and more obvious insights from procedural fairness is that when people perceive they have been treated fairly, even in situations in which they receive a negative outcome,  they feel the decisions are legitimate and this has a knock on consequence for their future compliance with the law.

The powerful evidence behind improving ‘the how’ is one of the reasons we have focused on procedural fairness in the work we have done on young adults in court.

We know young adults face a number of barriers to feeling they are treated fairly in the current court process. It can be difficult to follow, with complex and technical language; intimidating, with an uncomfortably formal setting; and lacking in opportunity for direct engagement. We also know that procedural fairness may be significantly more important to young people than to adults, as they are especially attuned to perceptions of unfairness and signs of respect. Empirical research has identified that young peoples’ perception of their sentencer has the largest influence on their views of the overall legitimacy of the justice system, even when controlling for the outcome of their case.The atmosphere of the courtroom itself has also been found to be significantly related to perceptions of legitimacy: young people who “experienced an atmosphere of confusion and unprofessionalism tended to view the entire justice system as less legitimate” than young people who had a better court experience.

This evidence is also important in work we are currently conducting around the BAME experience in court. There is some promising evidence that procedural justice strategies can improve the court experience for defendants who otherwise have low levels of trust in criminal justice institutions, amongst whom are often individuals from marginalised ethnic minorities.

Effective ways of raising defendants’ perceptions of fairness can be simple things— how you provide explanations of the court process, before, during and after court, and how defendants are engaged in the courtroom by the judge, lawyers and the courts staff. They also, usefully in the current climate, are things that are easier to fix in a world of shrinking budgets. These things are really all questions about how we do things and much less about what we do. In presenting research and advocating for changes in policy, all of those who contribute to the public debate should remember that very often it’s how we do things, and not what, that may make the difference.