Navigating Justice: Enhancing Youth Diversion Strategies for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

The Centre for Justice Innovation has published a report which scrutinises the current state of youth diversion programs for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) within the justice system. It reveals critical insights into the over-representation of SEND children in these settings and examines the efficacy of existing diversion strategies aimed at preventing further offending by children. 


Key Findings of the Report

70-90% of youths in the criminal justice system exhibit some form of SEND, suggesting issues of oversight in early identification and support within the current system.

Communication barriers are a significant hurdle, with many SEND children unable to navigate the justice system effectively due to misconstrued non-compliance or behavioural issues, rather than actual understanding or intent.

Police and youth justice practitioners often lack the necessary training to identify and properly manage SEND, resulting in increased risks of unjust treatment and inappropriate sentencing.

Statistics and Trends

The report notes an increase in police interactions with SEND children, often escalating to arrests due to miscommunication or perceived non-compliance. Notably, 71% of children sentenced between April 2019 and March 2020 were identified with speech, language, and communication needs.[1]

80% of those who had been cautioned or sentenced for an offence, 87% of those cautioned or sentenced for a serious violence offence, and 95% of those whose offending had been prolific, had been recorded as ever having special educational needs.[2]

Higher rates of SEND are noted among children from ethnic minorities, those receiving free school meals, and those living in high deprivation areas. Factors driving these high levels of SEND include intergenerational disability and other co-occurring issues like low birth weight and family stress.


  1. National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Enhancements:

    The NPCC must ensure that policing of children with SEND is compassionate and appropriate. 

  2. Clarification of Legal Requirements by NPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service:

    Clarification is needed on the prerequisites for diversion schemes such as admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility. 

  3. Improved Legal Advice for Children with SEND:

    Legal regulatory bodies need to ensure that children with SEND receive tailored legal advice. Duty solicitors require specific training on SEND and the diversion process.

  4. Research on the Role of Appropriate Adults:

    The Youth Justice Board should investigate the role of appropriate adults in supporting children with SEND. 

  5. Development of YJS Diversion Processes:

    Youth Justice Services (YJS) should develop their diversion processes to include Speech and Language Therapists and ensure joint decision-making panels are balanced and consistent.

  6. Sharing of Best Practices Among YJS:

    There is a need for YJS to share successful practices in adapting interventions to the needs of children with SEND. 


The report calls for a systemic overhaul of how justice systems interact with children who have special educational needs and disabilities. It advocates for a more informed, compassionate approach that recognises the specific challenges these children face and provides them with the support necessary to avoid unnecessary and detrimental involvement with the criminal justice system.

Written by Macario Chung (Associate) and Zuaib Kassam (Trainee) at Paul Hastings LLP

[1] Youth Justice Board/Ministry of Justice, (2021). Assessing the needs of sentenced children in the youth justice system 2019/20.

[2] Department for Education and Ministry of Justice, (2022). Education, children’s social care and offending. Descriptive Statistics.