By Hannah Couchman – Research and Policy Officer (Youth and Family Courts), Magistrates Association
The recently updated Youth Court Bench Book 2017 contains a revised version of the Magistrates Association (MA) Youth Court Protocol.
The MA Youth Court Protocol was originally developed in 2003 as additional guidance for magistrates on the practices and processes of the youth justice system, but it has evolved to be a useful resource for all those who come into contact with the youth court, including defence lawyers, Crown Prosecution Service advocates and Youth Offending Teams.
One of the key changes reflected in the updated Protocol is the introduction of the new ‘Overarching Principles – Sentencing Youths’ guidelines, including offence-specific guidelines for sexual offences and robbery. The new guidelines, which came into force this summer, encourage magistrates to look in greater detail at the age, background and circumstances of each child who appears before them. The aim is to reach the most appropriate sentence that will best reflect these considerations and achieve the goal of securing a vulnerable child’s welfare and preventing reoffending. The new guidelines also cover changes to legislation such as the rules for allocation of cases to different courts, and reflects changes in offending by taking into account developments such as the use of technology and social media in offending behaviour.
Whilst these guidelines do not represent a dramatic change to current practice, magistrates will welcome this additional guidance on aspects of a young person’s personal circumstances and background.
Another key development reflected in the updated Youth Court Protocol is the use of technology in courts. As the justice system become increasingly digitised , with both witnesses and defendants appearing by video link, the MA has made it clear through to Protocol that children should appear in court in person unless there are exceptional circumstances. If the court is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice for a child to appear by video link, the Youth Offending Team must be able to make representations as to the suitability of this course of action in relation to the child’s specific needs.
Finally, the new Youth Court Protocol emphasises the need for specialist communication skills in the youth court to ensure children are able to understand and engage with the court process. This means that judicial office holders, advocates and court staff need a thorough understanding of the different and particular communication needs of young people – at least 60% of young people in the justice system have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), and research clearly shows that SLCN are strongly over-represented within the justice system. The MA and Judicial College recently launched a module of e-learning on communication skills in the youth court.
Overall, the Youth Court Protocol seeks to reflect the specialist nature of youth court proceedings and the need to provide a supportive, accessible environment which enables children to feel informed and understand the court process – particularly essential following David Lammy MP’s recent finding that the over-representation of young people from BAME communities has resulted in a chronic ‘trust deficit’ in the justice system.