When I first started work in a criminal law firm in London almost 16 years ago, I had not given any previous consideration to young offenders. They had not featured in my legal education, youth delinquency was not the tabloid staple that it is today, and the thought of a need for specialisation in the area had simply not occurred to me.
Back then, I was far from alone in my ignorance. Our local youth court had the advantage over others of sitting several days a week; but the only real difference between the youth and adult magistrates? court appeared to be the absence of a public gallery. For reasons I could never quite fathom, the local district judge did not venture into the youth court (appearing in front of him in the adult court, I concluded that this was probably in the young people?s best interests!). The magistrates who dispensed youth justice seemed distant, with hearings conducted in language far beyond the defendants? comprehension. It seemed to me that lawyers required no special knowledge or abilities ? a mistake made by many.
In fact, the only attribute that was apparently necessary was the art of negotiation. Legal aid was not then an automatic right of a young defendant and my powers of persuasion were honed by coaxing benefit books out of distrustful parents because I needed proof of their receipt of benefit to be able to represent their offspring for free. The common misconception was that, by handing over the book, their benefits would be stopped because they had allowed their child to get into trouble!
Since 1998 there has been what feels like a never ending stream of legislation affecting youth court work: the introduction of reprimands, final warnings and, latterly, triage to divert young people away from court at the police station stage. If they reach court, changes in sentencing include referral orders, action plan orders, intensive supervision and surveillance programmes and detention and training orders. Most recently, all community orders have been abolished in favour of a single youth rehabilitation order with a mix?n?match assortment of 16 conditions that can be attached to it. If some sort of specialist knowledge was not a prerequisite when I started, it is now.
But I do not endorse the proposals in the quality assurance for advocates scheme (QASA) that youth court advocacy should be limited to specialists who have achieved certain levels of Crown Court experience. In fact, I can?t think of anything worse. Practising in London?s youth courts does not just require advocacy skills. An ability to communicate with monosyllabic teenagers is essential ? coaxing instructions out of a young defendant who would rather be in bed and is eyeballing someone across the crowded waiting room for coming from ?the wrong ends? is not a skill that they teach on the legal practice course.
Crowded waiting rooms and long delays are not daily features of Crown Court work and horrify those barristers more used to a rarefied environment than a bear pit. It helps if the defence representative has a basic grasp of ?gang politics?. Clients only complain about you representing young people from other areas if you expect them to sit together; most are magnamimous in allowing you to increase your client base if it is not at the cost of their pride or safety.
Youth courts today accept jurisdiction on a far wider spectrum of offences than when I joined the profession. The only robbery trial I acted in during my early days was a case involving 3p and a packet of crisps (the prosecution of which to this day dumbfounds me as it took place in a school playground) whereas, this year alone, I have conducted trials in the youth court on charges of knife-point robbery, sexual assault, false imprisonment and blackmail.
These may be the kind of cases that the QASA proposals are aimed at and I agree that, by virtue of their very serious nature, they should not be undertaken lightly; but certificates for counsel are available for these and should be applied for without hesitation.
It is a mark of the progress made in the youth court that it is now preferable for young people to remain within its jurisdiction where at all possible. The relative informality of the venue, coupled with the efforts made to ensure that proceedings are conducted in language that the young defendant can understand, should go some way to reducing the stress of appearing at court.
Increasingly, firms have solicitors who regularly appear at the youth court and prosecutors must receive specialist training. The system remains far from perfect but it appears to me that, at long last, it has gone some way to acknowledging the view of the Children?s Commissoner, Maggie Atkinson, that children who commit crime should be treated differently from adults.