“They don’t talk to you, they talk about you.

How can we meet the needs of young adults at court?

Posted on 13 Mar in

Claire Ely

In adult court “they don’t talk to you, they talk about you.”

The majority of the young adults (bar one, more on that later) I have spoken to about their experience at magistrate’s court have expressed their frustration of not having their voices heard. I appreciate that just over 20 individuals across five magistrates courts is not a true representation of all but it is hard to ignore.

We can all relate to the frustration of not being heard or our voices being ignored. I can think of one meeting in particular where I might as well have not been there but thankfully, this meeting was not about a life changing decision, unlike those made in courts across the country every day. It seems pretty simple to fix –  just give individuals an opportunity to speak at court and listen to what they have to say.

Voice and Procedural Fairness

There is a wealth of evidence to support this. Voice is a key principle of procedural fairness. The concept of fairness is not particularly controversial: Having the opportunity to share one’s views has a positive effect on a person’s experience regardless of the outcome.

But, as with all criminal justice reform – it is just not that simple. We shared the young adult feedback with the local practitioners and some were concerned that if you give young adults a chance to speak, “they will make it worse for themselves” or “not know when to shut up.” There was also concern that some individuals will be “too intimidated to be able to express themselves properly.” Valid concerns but not insurmountable.

At my workshops around the country, the young adults provided solutions to all of these obstacles. Here are a couple: Staff could help prepare or support the young adults before court and explain that they may be asked to speak or the young adults could write a letter to the bench if they don’t feel comfortable speaking out loud. These and other solutions I came away with seemed achievable at court and without much expense or heavy-lifting.

One of the young adults mentioned above, had this to say about his time at magistrates’ courts: “They listened to my experiences, they covered everything – it was fair”.  So it seems giving young people at court the opportunity to speak up and have their voices heard is not only simple but it gives the young people a feeling that the system has been fair to them.