I recently read an article in the Law Society Gazette – the publication which keeps its finger on the beating heart of the justice system – which asked questions about the way in which children are dealt with in the courts.
It seems that, although there has been a reduction in the numbers of children and young people appearing in the youth court, there are real concerns about how those cases are being dealt with by the court, the Crown Prosecution Service and by those who should be looking after the interests of the children in the lead up to the court appearance and in the court itself. The writer emphasised the need for any young person to have an understanding solicitor who can provide proper representation for them.
I have defended young people aged from 10 – 17 years old for over seventeen years at police stations and in the youth courts. I have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience. I am sure that any child that I have represented in the past would confirm that I am approachable, professional, thorough and very hard-working. My aim is to ensure that the child’s voice is heard and their best interests served.
My first step is to build trust between the child and me. I do this by chatting informally with them about their interests before we even begin talking about the police station or the court. It is important that they understand that I want the best result for them and that they have confidence in me.
I will then go on to explain the police station and court procedure, as may be appropriate, in a way that a youngster can understand. Often they are scared and bewildered as to how they have ended up with me sitting opposite them and telling them about the law. I know that initially, they may struggle to discuss whatever event has brought them to me and I always stress that we have as much time as they need to talk and to help me understand what has happened.
It is very important that I allow them to feel comfortable and confident to discuss everything with me so that I can provide accurate legal advice. If I am advising either at the police station or in preparation for a police station interview, I will obtain from the police officer the detail about the allegation. It is important that I establish what evidence the police have before I can properly advise. My advice will be tailored to the needs of the youngster. Sometimes the best interests of my client are served by exercising their right to remain silent when questioned. Explaining that advice can be quite challenging when the child’s natural inclination is to answer any question put to him by a police officer.
If the child is appearing at the youth court then I will have obtained the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) papers many days before their hearing. This gives me the opportunity to fully analyse the evidence in the case. I will also be able to gain an account from the child and possibly ask the CPS to consider dealing with the case in some way without a court appearance.
The Law Society Gazette article underlines that if the youngster is to have the best possible chances in the process then they need an advocate who is skilful, experienced and knowledgeable. The earlier in the process that I am instructed, the better opportunity there is to achieve the right result.
I often have to chart a tricky course through obvious parental disapproval for the act that the child is alleged to have carried out and the child’s reaction to that disapproval. Equally, I sometimes come across parents who simply cannot accept what appears to be overwhelming evidence. That also creates its own challenge.
A conviction in the youth court can have far-reaching effects on a young person’s future. It is so important that the process is given proper attention and that every effort is made to engage with and understand the child’s instructions. If this leads to a decision to deal with the case without the need for a court appearance then as a result of a recent change this might mean that it cannot be referred to later in life.
If the allegation is denied then it can be extremely important that the reasons for that denial are explained fully to the police so that a failure to mention a fact does not count against the child in any future court appearance. Moreover, the court process itself can be both confusing and complex where the allegation is denied. This is where I can help in guiding through the trial process and making appropriate strategic and tactical decisions.
My most important message is that the sooner advice is taken the better. I have seen many cases where the child would have benefited from earlier contact with me during the process. The system undoubtedly has some faults but long-lasting adverse effects can be avoided or minimised by early contact with me or with one of my colleagues.
If you know someone that might need my help, please contact me as soon as possible on 01473 211121 or email me at [email protected].