Bar regulator calls for youth justice shake-up over advocacy quality
The Bar Standards Board is calling for mandatory accreditation of youth justice advocates and for the Legal Aid Agency to pay additional fees in serious cases involving young defendants.
The call for reform follows BSBcommissioned research1Ali Wigzell, Amy Kirby and Jessica Jacobson, Youth proceedings advocacy review, Institute for Criminal Policy Research; Bar Standards Board; CILEx Regulation, November 2015.
that found ‘highly variable’ standards of advocacy in youth proceedings.
Only advocates who have undergone specialist training should be allowed to appear in youth proceedings, it says. Compulsory training should cover not just youth justice law, but also child development and vulnerabilities, communication and engagement skills, and provisions for vulnerable court users.
The findings of the study, conducted by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, reflect the concerns of youth justice campaigners that too often it is the most junior, least experienced barristers who end up doing youth court work. The report quotes one barrister describing the youth court as ‘a kindergarten for professionals to gain skills’. Yet, as the research highlights, young defendants are often acutely vulnerable: a third have special educational needs; a similar proportion have mental health problems.
The report’s recommendations are likely to prove controversial on both sides of the profession. The BSB, which regulates the bar, is regarded with suspicion by some barristers because of its unpopular Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), which was the subject of judicial review earlier this year.
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority refused to take part in the research and some solicitors are dismissing the recommendations as part of the bar’s continuing attack on solicitor advocates.
Among the BSB’s calls is for the LAA to ensure the most serious cases in the youth court attract the same level of funding as they would in the Crown Court. Rather than a litigator alone, these cases should have a certificate for assigned counsel, so that both a litigator and advocate are provided, ‘thereby ensuring that case preparation is to a level that adequately reflects their seriousness’.
Young people: no specialist lawyers if they end up in court.
It also calls for the LAA to pay an additional fee so advocates can meet their young clients ‘between the point of charge and the first appearance in court and, when necessary, before their trial or sentencing date’. Advocates should also be funded to take young defendants ‘on a court familiarisation visit’, it says. Critics have described the suggestion of additional payments from the LAA as ‘unrealistic to say the least’.
Jonathan Black, immediate past president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, tweeted that the suggestion youth advocates are doing an inadequate job was ‘offensive’. Another commentator on social media characterised the report’s recommendations as: ‘While Rome burns create a new quality mark or have a survey.’
However, its findings have been welcomed by the Youth Justice Legal Centre. YJLC director and youth justice barrister Kate Aubrey-Johnson (pictured) said: ‘On any objective basis, children should only be represented by the most expert and experienced lawyers. Yet the opposite is the case. The youth court is the place where junior barristers are expected to learn their craft, before moving on to more prestigious adult work. There would be an outcry if paediatric medicine were seen as a training ground for inexperienced surgeons, but this is exactly what happens in the criminal justice system.’
The past 10 years have seen a 75 per cent drop in the number of young people coming into the criminal justice system. In 2013/14, nearly 46,000 young people were proceeded against. Youth court judges and prosecutors undergo special training, but there is currently no equivalent for defence lawyers. Time for family values in criminal courts, page 16.