The Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) and the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck have published ground-breaking research on the quality of legal representation in the youth justice system. The findings cement the urgent need for clear guidance around training for solicitors to ensure children are adequately represented.
There is clear evidence that children coming into contact with the criminal justice system have a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities which require those representing them to have specialist skills, knowledge and expertise.
This is the first-time research has focused on solicitors representing children in the youth justice system. The purpose of the research was to explore the quality of legal advice and representation provided to children by criminal solicitors. The research consisted of an online self-assessment survey of criminal solicitors, interviews with various youth justice sector stakeholders and court observations. The following was investigated:
• The knowledge, skills and attributes needed by criminal defence solicitors to work effectively with child suspects and defendants;
• The extent to which solicitors have these qualities;
• Factors that support or undermine solicitors’ effective practice in the YJS;
• Interventions and training that could enhance the quality of solicitors’ work in the YJS.
The work builds on research conducted by ICPR in 2015 for the Bar Standards Board (BSB),which explored the quality of advocacy in the youth justice system in relation to barristers. Following that research, the BSB introduced the Youth Proceedings Competences, and a requirement that pupils and barristers representing children register they are competent to do so on an annual basis. There is currently no equivalent for solicitors.
This research highlights the extent to which solicitors are themselves seeking to address this training need. However, without clear guidance they are falling short, and children are being failed.
The report sets out five key recommendations to ensure children are adequately represented, without being un-necessarily onerous for solicitors working in a challenging sector. Solicitors should refer to the SRA’s good practice guide when reviewing their competencies to represent children and seek to ensure they are meeting their continued training needs.