We spoke with Laura Cooper, a specialist youth justice lawyer and Co-Head of the Youth Justice Legal Centre.
Tell me about The Youth Justice Legal Centre?
The Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) is part of Just for Kids Law, who set up YJLC in 2015 to be a centre of excellence in youth justice law. YJLC was set up with a website and advice line to support families and young people and provide training for lawyers - barristers, solicitors and youth offending services and sometimes to other professionals and we also hold an annual youth justice summit.
Let’s talk about the advice line, how was that set up?
The advice line has been going since 2015 and it is for families, young people, solicitors, YOTs and any other professionals that are working with a young person who have any questions, enquiries or concerns about a young person with any part of the youth justice system. So it is really broad which means we could get a call from a mum in Manchester, who has a son who is about to be voluntarily interviewed and they are unsure what that means. Or we get calls from a youth offending service that has a really complex question about what they should put in a pre-sentence report or what the best outcome is. So all sorts of things come from the advice line. It varies from one off advice to setting out the law in a long detailed email or working with a family a significant period of time such as through the release under investigation process.
We find that due to young people not being required to have a lawyer present during police interviews, sometimes they are interviewed without a lawyer. Often as the investigation is ongoing there is no funding for at that stage for anyone to support the family or the young person, so there is nowhere else for them to go. So what we quite like about the advice line is that it seems to plug a gap quite well. Also police station fees are very small and between the police station where the lawyer represents the young person in the interview and the decision to charge there is no more funding and no money. So it enables us to do things like put information together and potentially makes representations to the police, CPS and YOT as to why they should try and achieve the best outcome.
Do you find that a lot of your work is putting the case forward for children to be diverted?
A lot of what we do in the cases with young people is to try and divert them where we can so this is where it links in quite well with a lot of the work the Centre for Justice Innovation do. It ends up that we inevitably try and persuade those involved to divert the child either formally or ideally informally depending on the circumstances at place. We put forward why they should be diverted and why they should have as minimal contact with the criminal justice system as possible. A lot of this comes from written representations and setting guidance or anything that is relevant to that particular case, that particular child and of course, the out of court disposal’s guidance.
What things have you found most surprising since the advice line started?
The advice line is very beneficial in that there are not many places people can go to for specialist youth justice legal advice. Sometimes the YOTs might have a question about a technical aspect of the law or an emerging piece of law and they can get advice on that. We sometimes get calls from police and we realise there is still a lack of understanding around diversion and formal out of court disposals and also the long term implications of the criminal records system. Sometimes a parent will call and mention that the police have advised them that a caution will be wiped off their child’s record when they turn 18 and it is obviously more complicated than that. I find that some officers are beginning to understand but there are still some officers who are not differentiating their approach to be child centred. That is why the representations we make are so important.
What we find so often is being released under investigation has a real detrimental effect to children because they are under investigation for months and months if not years, I have had quite a few where it is up to two years. How detrimental that is to a young person who is going through such an important stage of development, is really concerning. It does not just affect the young person but their families and support workers too. So not only are we trying to make sure the lawyer has everything they need to get the right outcome whether it is at court or police stations, but we are also able to see what is happening across the country and get a picture of what is going on.
What are some of the successes that have come from the advice line?
YJLC is part of Just for Kids Law, so we sometimes can refer a young person to an advocate because Just for Kids Law have youth advocates, who can support work with young people who have housing problems or various other issues they might need support for. If appropriate we can link that young person in to get wider support. We also have a strategic litigation team who take on cases where they believe there is going to be a wider beneficial outcome. So they take on high profile cases and quite a lot of the cases strategic litigation take on has come through the YJLC advice line. If a case comes in that is showing a systemic issue, we can pass it on the strategic litigation team and they can do a judicial review of the decision that has been made. An example of these type of cases can be seen here.
We get a lot of calls where we talk a lawyer or family through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) modern slavery defence and the process to go through. As we are linked with the in-house crime team at Just for Kids Law who specialise in just representing children, we are able to give them real expertise on what they should go through in the NRM application and getting CPS to drop the case. So through the advice line you get an idea of the kind of issues that keep coming up. You also get to see where good practice is taking place through the relationships we end up building with the YOTs and also where practice can be improved.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge?
A challenge has been making sure we have enough capacity, to make sure that you respond to everything in a detailed and most comprehensive fashion. These cases can often take up a lot of time; so knowing your capacity is important. We are open every day and we do say if it is urgent give us a day to get back to you and if it is not urgent three days or we will get back as soon as we can.
Also another challenge is trying not to get too frustrated when you do not get the outcome you want, often we do better than we hoped but it is still not the outcome we desired, I want it to be an informal outcome always, so I get annoyed when it is a caution!
You can find out more about the Youth Justice Legal Centre and the support they offer here.
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