ZA v R – Court of Appeal provides guidance for sentencing children and young people

The Court of Appeal has set out a checklist which aims to ensure that all sentences involving children reflect the “entirely different approach to sentence required than that which courts routinely apply to adult offenders.” The case can be read in full here.


The matter concerned five co-defendants, aged between 15 and 17 at the time of the offences. The appellant pleaded guilty to theft and possession of a bladed article and was convicted by the jury of conspiracy to rob. He was acquitted of murder and manslaughter.

Relying heavily on the adult guideline for Robbery, the Judge sentenced the appellant to five years detention for conspiracy to rob and six month concurrent sentences for the other two counts. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and reduced the child’s sentence to one of three years detention.


The Court criticised the judge’s approach to the sentencing, in particular noting that all counsel and judge failed to refer to the youth-specific Robbery guideline. The Court further criticised her for failing to approach the sentence in the “individualistic way advocated in the overarching youth guideline”, as well as not discriminating between the appellant and his older-co-defendants and failing to explain why she did not regard a Youth Rehabilitation Order with Intensive Support and Surveillance as suitable.

In addition, the Court found that, as neither the theft nor the bladed article offences were grave crimes, the concurrent sentences of detention were unlawful. The only possible custodial sentence for these offences would have been a Detention and Training Order. 

The Court then set out its checklist for sentencing children and young people (at paragraph 83):

  1. Court listing should ensure that there is sufficient time for the judge, even if that judge heard the trial and knows the case well, to read and consider all reports and to prepare sentencing remarks in age-appropriate language.
  2. Consideration should be given to listing separately, and as a priority, the sentence of any child(ren) or young person(s) jointly convicted with adult co-defendants.
  3. The courtroom should be set up and arranged to ensure that the child or young person to be sentenced is treated appropriately, namely as a vulnerable defendant entitled to proper support. So far as possible the judge should be seated on a level with the child or young person, and the latter should be able to sit near to counsel, with parental or other support seated next to them (see further below).
  4. Counsel must expect to submit full sentencing notes identifying all relevant Sentencing Council Guidelines, in particular any youth-specific guideline(s), addressing material considerations in an individualistic way for each defendant separately (if more than one young defendant is to be sentenced). Where an individualistic approach is mandated, as it is for a child or young person, a note which addresses all defendants compendiously risks missing important distinctions. These notes should be uploaded well in advance of the sentencing hearing.
  5. The contents of the Youth Justice Service pre-sentence report and any medical/psychiatric/psychological reports will be key. Courts should consider these reports bearing in mind the general principles at section 1 of the overarching youth guideline, together with any youth-specific offence guideline, carefully working through each.
  6. In general it will not be helpful to go straight to paragraph 6.46 of the overarching youth guideline [that the court may consider applying a sentence of half to two thirds of the equivalent adult sentence] without having first directed the court to general principles canvassed earlier in that guideline, as well as to any youth-specific guideline. The stepped approach in the overarching youth guideline and any youth-specific offence guideline should be followed. Working through the guideline(s) in this way will enable the court to arrive at the most appropriate sentence for the particular child or young person, bearing in mind their individual circumstances together with the dual aims of youth sentencing.
  7. If the court considers that the offence(s) is(are) so serious as to pass the custody threshold, the court must consider whether a YRO with ISS can be imposed instead. If it cannot, then the court must explain why.

The Court also sought (at paragraphs 83 to 88) to remind courts of further practical matters which are required when sentencing children, and the importance of the Youth Bench Book. 


This is a helpful summary by the Court of Appeal of the principles involved in the sentencing of children and young people. It will likely be of significant assistance for practitioners when representing or assessing children who are due for sentence.

The most significant among these are the fourth and the sixth. These provide clear instruction in the steps by which courts should approach the sentencing exercise for children and emphasise that an individualistic approach must be taken. The latter guides courts away from the suggestion that a sentence between half and two-thirds of an adult sentence may be appropriate, found in paragraph 6.46 of the Sentencing Guidelines for Children and Young People.

This, together with the emphasis on the importance of expert and YJS reports and the need to distinguish between child defendants and their older co-accused, should make courts more receptive to the possibilities of more individualised, child-focused sentences. It will be welcomed by practitioners seeking for the courts to view children as children, rather than as mini-adults.

Robbie Eyles

Criminal Solicitor

Just for Kids Law