This week has seen extensive debate about the state of England and Wales’ youth courts, following the Guardian’s series of articles on the topic. The newspaper was quick to highlight a range of issues, from long delays, to courtroom gang warfare. But while the coverage has brought some important issues to light, our own research shows a more nuanced picture.
Recent years have seen a welcome decline in the number of children and young people caught up in the youth justice system in England and Wales. The number of prosecutions in youth court has fallen by 69% since 2007. However, the increased success in diverting less difficult cases aware from court, means that young people being prosecuted today are, more challenging to work with.
The Centre for Justice Innovation, together with Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, has been working with courts and youth offending teams (YOTs) to explore how the youth court is operating and how it could better meet the needs of this more vulnerable cohort.
We’ve now completed our fieldwork for this project and we are currently analysing our findings, but an early picture is emerging – though it’s important to bear in mind that this is a small scale qualitative study which aims to give a snapshot of practice across three areas and our observations may not be representative.
We have found a mixed picture of practice in youth courts. We came across many dedicated practitioners who were committed to improving the support for young people and saw examples of creative and innovative practice. In particular, we noted good practice aimed at improving engagement with young people in the courtroom to enhance procedural fairness, and the innovative use of reviews to monitor the progress of young people on youth rehabilitation orders and encourage greater accountability.
However, we also came across some troubling practice which falls short of the distinctive model of youth court set out in the bench book and other guidance. This included inconsistent, unclear and combative courtroom communication, defence advocacy that is inappropriate for the youth court, and a shortage of specialist support for young people with special educational needs or limited understanding of English.
The people we spoke to identified a number of barriers which were inhibiting improvements to the youth court. In particular, they singled out the disruption caused by the rapid pace of change to the court system driven by the modernisation programme, court closures, and the associated bench mergers.
Overall, while there is much good and innovative practice, our research in three areas shows a picture of youth courts which have been stretched by the pace of change and resource shortages. As a result, the increasingly vulnerable young people coming before the court are not always receiving the treatment they deserve.
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Head of Evidence and Data