Guest post by Karen Todner, Solicitor
I attended Higham Lane School and I have always kept in contact with the school as I was very appreciative of my time there. It was therefore with some surprise that I saw on the news in July 2017 that a Nuneaton schoolboy had taken a shotgun and bullets into the school. It was clear that he very quickly realised the error of his ways and in fact called the police himself, and no harm was caused to anyone.
It was with some interest that I followed the case in the media. I was shocked and dismayed to see that he received a custodial sentence of six years detention. I entered into an email exchange with the Headmaster regarding the appropriateness of the sentence and he put the parents of the young boy in contact with me. I then agreed to take on his appeal.
As he was only 15, the boy who I shall refer to as AB was held in a secure children’s home near Bristol. It was clear to me, on meeting him, that he was yet another individual who became involved in the criminal justice system because he was autistic and had never been properly diagnosed. I immediately arranged for his assessment and his diagnosis of autism was confirmed.
The previous solicitors and Counsel representing AB had indeed instructed a forensic psychiatrist to write a report about him. However, that psychiatrist was not an expert in the field of autism or in dealing with adolescents. This case was a clear example of the importance of instructing the correct type of expert.
On obtaining the sentencing remarks of the Judge at Warwick Crown Court, it was clear that he had not dealt with two particular issues:
1. The fact that there are no sentencing guidelines for possession of a firearm for a 15 year old. This is perhaps indicative in itself of how a court dealing with an offender of those tender years should approach the level of sentence.
2. Secondly, the Judge failed to take account of the Definitive Guideline for sentencing Children and Young People published in June 2017 and the November 2009 Guideline – Overarching Principles – Sentencing Youths.
The Warwickshire Youth Justice Team who were involved with AB were simply fantastic. They had been actively involved in addressing AB’s needs and were working closely with the family to ensure that he came to no harm in the criminal justice system. The Youth Justice practitioner made it very clear in her Pre-Sentence Report that AB was not dangerous and posed no ongoing risk. However, the learned Judge stated in his sentencing that ‘the sentence that I am going to pass on you will in my view adequately protect the public from the risk that you currently pose, a risk that might arise if you are not held and looked after for a period’. This was despite there being no evidence whatsoever in front of the Judge that AB posed an ongoing risk.
The Warwickshire Youth Justice Service recommended very clearly that any form of custodial sentence would be an inappropriate sentence. In particular, a real concern was that when AB reached the age of 17 he would have to leave the relatively tolerable surroundings of the secure children’s home and be transferred into a full Young Offender Institution (YOI) such as Feltham. It was clear to everybody who met him that AB would not survive five minutes in the confines of somewhere such as Aylesbury or Feltham YOI.
On attending the Court of Appeal it was clear from the outset that the court had real concerns about the sentence that had been passed. Having considered the Sentencing Council’s Definitive Guideline for sentencing children and young people, the Court of Appeal accepted that the mitigation was such that AB should in fact receive a Youth Rehabilitation Order with requirements as set out by the Warwickshire Youth Justice Team.
The case is of real concern. I became involved because of my connection with the school, however, I do wonder how many other children are out there languishing in secure accommodation because the guidelines are not being fully or properly adhered to.
Karen Todner is a solicitor and leading human rights lawyer.