Advocacy in the youth court
Many children in the youth justice system are likely to:
- be in care
- have mental and other health problems
- have learning difficulties
The youth court is where having an expert lawyer can make a difference.
In 2023, the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) and the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck published research on the quality of legal representation in the youth justice system.
The research highlights the range of complex needs and vulnerabilities of children coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
Tips for working with children in the youth justice system
These tips provide a basic introduction to working with children in the youth justice system:
- understanding youth justice law
- positive client relationships
- client backgrounds
- what to expect in court
- after the trial
- assigned advocates
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) offers a wide range of resources on criminal and youth court advocacy.
The youth court differs from the adult court in many ways, including:
- bail and remand decisions
- jurisdiction decisions
- anonymity protections
- special measures regimes and standards
- sentences and outcomes
- statutory bodies
Listen to your client and show that you understand their concerns. If they feel you’re trying your best for them, they’re more likely to be open and want to take part.
Make sure your client understands what you’ve told them
Use simple language, avoid legal jargon and ask open questions.
Ask your client to explain back to you what you’ve just told them or ask questions to find out if they’ve understood your advice.
The Criminal Bar Association has made a video on how advocates can adapt their questioning to young and/or vulnerable witnesses.
Watch the video (27 minutes)
To make sure you can properly represent your client, find out as much as you can about them. Ask them, their parents/carers, support worker and the youth offending team whether:
- there are any problems at home
- they have any medical conditions or diagnosis, including any mental illness
- they’re on any medication
- they’re at school or college (and if they can get extra help)
- they have a statement of special educational needs or an education, health and care (EHC) plan
You should also know who their family is and who they live with.
Ideally, you should show your client and their supporting adult(s) around the courtroom when it’s empty. If this is not possible, you can:
- talk them through the layout of the courtroom
- explain who will be in court and where they’ll be sitting
- go through what will happen
Most district judges and magistrates will want to speak to the young defendant. It’s your role to make sure communication between the court and the child is as easy as possible, so prepare them for this before going into court.
- what’s been decided in court
- what’s expected of them now
- any questions they might have
They should know what support is available locally for issues such as:
- employment and training
- mental health
There's growing concern that children tried in the youth court for serious offences are often represented by inexperienced and junior advocates.
To make sure children are represented by both an advocate (a barrister or other suitably qualified advocate) and a litigator (solicitor), the YJLC has published best practice on how to apply for certificates for assigned advocates (also known as certificates for counsel).
In-house advocates (including solicitors with higher rights of audience) can act as an assigned advocate and make a claim in the same way as other counsel.
Read the YJLC's guidance on certificates for assigned advocates in the youth court
Dare to Care: Representing care experienced young people – report from Youth Justice Legal Centre (2023)
Advocacy for children in conflict with the law – guidance from the Inns of Court College Advocacy
Questioning young and/or vulnerable witnesses – Criminal Bar Association
Review of the youth justice system in England and Wales, Ministry of Justice (2016)