The fifth research paper in the series, this project seeks to understand the impact that the pandemic has had on the Youth Courts. The paper is delivered by the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, together with the Alliance for Youth Justice and explores both the short and long-term challenges children in the Youth Courts face in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The research paper notes that much court business was suspended in March 2020. Magistrates’ Courts initially heard only urgent work, much of which was concluded remotely. This exacerbated an already large backlog of cases. Summary work of Magistrates’ Courts recovered quickly after lockdown was lifted, however Crown Court youth cases are still in the process of recovery. In particular, trials brought logistical complications due to the number of people required to be present. Witnesses, police officers and a pool of jurors needed to be organised, which made trials harder to co-ordinate whilst socially distancing. Below is a summary of some of the ways in which courts adapted their processes in light of Covid-19 restrictions:
- Legally qualified judges were used in the Youth Courts rather than lay magistrates – this meant that the bench consisted of one judge rather than three magistrates, making social distancing easier. Hearings could be completed faster, as fundamentals of the law did not need to be explained.
- Cloud Video Platforms (CVPs) were used. Whilst this was more time-efficient since lawyers no longer needed to commute to different courts, practitioners were on the whole in favour of physical presence in the courtroom. This was because it was much harder for young defendants to engage with the court through CVP or to understand what was happening at their hearing. Despite the spike in the use of CVP at the beginning of the pandemic, there appears to be a consensus amongst professionals (and a clear judicial preference) for in-person court attendance going forward.
- Limitations on space in courtrooms (for social distancing reasons) had an impact on children and their family members who came to support them during their trial. Courts’ attitudes to space constraints varied, some providing flexibility and allowing families to attend, and some adhering rigidly to set rules.
- Some hearings were moved to adult court buildings. These are more intimidating for young defendants and may have caused lower engagement levels from children who were required to attend a hearing in a set-up intended for adults.
Following the pandemic, short-term challenges for the Youth Courts include the continuing impact of delays in the system on children, whilst the backlog continues to be dealt with. Some children will need to be reminded by professionals that their offences are still crimes, despite the fact that they have been dealt with via an out-of-court disposal order during the pandemic. Longer term, the research paper notes that the Youth Offending Service was unable to offer their usual level of support to children during lockdown and that a reduction in the numbers of interventions may result in more reoffending in the future. Further, children have spent a considerable amount of time outside school over the past few years, where formal diagnosis of mental health issues might have first been made. These factors will contribute to longer-term issues which will need to be taken into account by practitioners.
The delays and disruption caused by the pandemic will affect all defendants following the pandemic. However professionals should be aware of the impacts of the pandemic on children in the youth justice system in particular. The paper sets out a number of areas it considers to be key in addressing the impact of adaptations to court hearings during the pandemic. It highlights the variation in practice between different courts, for example in relation to granting CVP applications, which created uncertainty for advocates working in different courts. Additionally, delays caused by backlogs can cause great distress and uncertainty for child defendants and there are concerns about the serious implications of this on the mental health and long-term wellbeing of child defendants in future.
Written by Charlotte Rice, Associate, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP