The long awaited NPCC Child Gravity Matrix has been published and replaces the ACPO Gravity Matrix (2013) with immediate effect.
This Child Gravity Matrix is a triage tool to support decision making for officers, to assist in deciding the most appropriate outcome or disposal for those children and young people, under the age of 18 years who offend. This matrix reflects the breadth of options available to the decision maker both statutory (caution, conditional caution or prosecution) and non‐statutory (community resolution, deferred prosecution, deferred caution, voluntary diversionary activity).
The key changes to the Child Gravity Matrix are summarised below:
- The gravity scores previously ranged from 1 to 4. They now range from 1 to 5 with 1 being cases suitable for no further action (where the evidential test and public interest test are not met) and 5 being cases which should normally result in a charge. Scores 2, 3 and 4 result in different forms of out of court disposals - informal out of court disposals (2), Youth Cautions (3) and Youth Conditional Cautions (4).
- The matrix refers decision makers to relevant documents and policies that should be considered when determining the appropriate method of disposal. This is a non-exhaustive list but includes the overarching principles of the Youth Justice System, DPP Guidance (Charging) 6th Edition and the Child Centred Policing Strategy 2016 which makes clear that the unnecessary criminalisation of care experienced children and young people must be avoided. It also refers decision makers to the Youth Justice Board Strategic Plan, Police Race Action Plan (which aims to address the disparities affecting children and young people from black, brown and racialised backgrounds) as well as the Child Centred Policing Best Practice Framework.
- The ‘step by step’ guide for decision makers now includes the application of the ‘vulnerability factors’ table. This table includes a range of factors which are specific to the child or young person such as adverse childhood experiences, whether they are subject to child in need or child protection plans and neurodiversity. The level of previous compliance with out of court disposals will also be considered.
- The matrix now makes clear that the 10 point checklist must be completed when charging advice is being sought for offences alleged to have been committed in children’s homes and placements by care experienced young people. It also confirms that where a young person is entering the criminal justice system for the first time, the ‘First Time Entrants’ (FTE) checklist should be completed.
- A new disposal table which highlights the various options that are available to the decision maker when considering informal and formal disposal options. This also accounts for changes in disposal options since the publication of the old ACPO Youth Gravity Matrix and now encompasses the full range of disposals.
- The ‘specific offence considerations’ now includes domestic abuse offences. Where the evidential test is met, the police can no longer take no further action on the grounds that an offence does not meet the public interest test. The same applies for offences which are classified as hate crimes. The offences of possession of a bladed article and offensive weapons are also included within this section. As before, the starting point for a young person aged 16 or 17 is that they will be charged unless there are exceptional circumstances which render an out of court disposal appropriate. For young people under the age of 16, the starting point is a Youth Caution or Youth Conditional Caution where there are no aggravating features. However, this should be considered in conjunction with the previous guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service and the NPCC.
- There is a ‘common offences’ table in addition to the longer list of offences which has also been expanded. The appropriate gravity score for several offences has also changed, for example, for the offence of possession of a class B or C drug, the starting point is now an informal out of court disposal whereas previously, it fell within the category of a Youth Caution or Youth Conditional Caution.
The updated child gravity matrix has been eagerly awaited by all who work within the Youth Justice System. It neatly consolidates various policies and key principles into one document, however, many may be of the view that it has not lived up to what was expected.
It was hoped that that the new gravity matrix would be less prescriptive and encourage decision makers to make decisions on a case by case basis. The inclusion of the ‘vulnerability factors’ table goes someway to encouraging case by case decision making as the personal circumstances of the individual child or young person must be taken into consideration. This is the most positive change within the updated gravity matrix and is more in line with the ‘child first’ approach, however, how this will work in practice remains to be seen. Where information about a young person’s background is not readily available to the police, it is ‘recommended’ that they approach the Youth Offending Service, however, there is no requirement on the police to do so. In the absence of information about the young person’s individual circumstances, the decision making process reverts to the same process as before. From a practical approach, those representing children and young people at the police station should consider providing any relevant information to the decision maker directly to ensure that all information is considered.
It appears that a new blanket policy has been introduced in respect of domestic abuse offences and offences classed as hate crimes. The gravity matrix is clear that where the evidential test is met, the police cannot make the decision to take no further action on public interest grounds. This is particularly concerning in the context of domestic abuse cases. A young person who makes threatening remarks to their sibling with no intention to carry out those threats could fall within this policy, as could a neurodivergent young person who assaults a parent. This could potentially result in the unnecessary criminalisation of young people.
It was hoped that the gravity matrix would provide clarity on what may amount to ‘exceptional’ circumstances in relation children and young people who have been arrested for an offence of possession of a bladed article or offensive weapon. Unfortunately, it is silent on this point so it remains unclear what may amount to ‘truly exceptional circumstances’ for an informal out of court disposal and what amount to ‘exceptional’ circumstances for an out of court disposal in the case of a young person aged 16 and over. There also needs to be clarity in relation to the starting point for a young person under the age of 16. The gravity matrix suggests that the starting point is either a Youth Caution or Youth Conditional Caution, however, previous guidance indicates that the appropriate method of disposal is a Youth Conditional Caution.
The impact that the updated Child Gravity Matrix will have remains to be seen however, it remains an invaluable tool for those representing children and young people within the criminal justice system. It can be used to make representations to the Crown for an out of court disposal and in challenging decisions to prosecute.
Practitioners should ensure that the Matrix is being applied in an appropriately flexible manner. The Youth Justice Board’s summary of the new Matrix emphasises this point and reminds practitioners not to forget the core principles of youth justice when using this tool:
“it is crucial to remember that the Child Gravity Matrix should be used as a guide, not a rigid rulebook. The essence of this approach is aligned with Child First principles, which seek to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children. Each case should still be examined on an individual basis to ensure that justice is served in the best interests of the child and victims – the exercise of professional judgement is crucial.”
Written by Sabrina Neves, Solicitor at GT Stewart Solicitors