Good Practice Guide for Youth Court Solicitors
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has published its new guide outlining what ‘good practice’ looks like for solicitors practicing in the Youth Court.
The guide is aimed primarily at defence solicitors, but also solicitors working within the CPS, who practice in the Youth Court. It focuses on four key areas, all of which are summarised below.
Knowledge and skills
Whilst important, maintaining continuing competence goes beyond keeping up to date with developments in Youth Justice Law, guidance and procedure. Solicitors working with young people should also maintain their knowledge of child development , childhood offending (and desistence) and be alive to the prevalent issues facing young people who are involved in the Youth Justice System. Solicitors should also continue to develop their ‘soft skills’ in engaging and communicating with young people, including those with additional vulnerabilities.
Awareness of background and needs
Active steps should be taken to ensure that the needs of young clients are identified and addressed; whether that is by instructing an intermediary if appropriate or inviting the Court to make reasonable adjustments. Steps should also be taken to understand the alleged offending behaviour in the context of the young person’s circumstances and background. The guidance identifies the importance of understanding the wishes and feelings of young people, working effectively with other agencies, particularly the Youth Offending Service, and knowing the local diversionary processes that are available.
Communication and engagement
Solicitors should adapt their approach to meet the specific needs of each young client, ensuring that they communicate in a manner that their client understands. Children and young people should be treated with respect and dignity and solicitors should ensure that the young person’s views are effectively presented during proceedings. The guide also identifies the importance of building a relationship of trust with young clients and working effectively with parents, guardians, supporting adults and appropriate adults.
Awareness of key organisations
Solicitors should work with statutory services and agencies, as well as local and national organisations, where it benefits the young person.
In 2021, the YJLC produced a powerful short film, Judged, which demonstrated just how daunting it can be for a young person to attend Court. Often, this is exacerbated further by additional needs which, in some cases, have not been identified prior to the young person coming into contact with the Youth Justice System. The guide makes clear that solicitors should take active steps to identify those needs, address them appropriately and ensure that they communicate in a manner tailored to the specific needs of each young client. It should always be remembered that young defendants are children first.
For many young people, their solicitor is yet another unknown professional that has become involved in their lives and building a relationship of trust is of paramount importance. Actively listening to young clients, and ensuring that their voice is heard, is also crucial, as is being alive to the prevalent difficulties that young people face. So much can be learned from what a young person says, and in some cases, what they do not say.
It is positive to see the SRA has identified that maintaining continuing competence when working with young people goes beyond just knowing the law. The SRA’s focus on the ‘soft skills’ required is likely to be a result of their previous findings that solicitors tend to focus less on undertaking training which develops these skills. When it comes to continuing competence, the message from the SRA is clear that it is not enough to simply list the training that has been undertaken; solicitors must reflect appropriately on the impact of the training on their youth practice and keep accurate records.
The representation of children and young people is recognised as a specialist area of legal practice and rightly so. The considerations when representing a young person are very different to those that arise when representing an adult. The SRA’s commitment to improving the quality of representation that children and young people receive is very much welcomed.
For further guidance on representing children in the Youth Court, see the following YJLC legal guides and toolkits. YJLC also offers a range of training to solicitors, barristers and youth justice services. The training has been developed in partnership with the Law Society and is an essential course for all those who will be representing children in criminal proceedings.
Written by Sabrina Neves, Solicitor at GT Stewart Solicitors