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Youth Justice System

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to enable children who commit offences to be tried and sentenced according to the youth justice system, and in particular, those who turn 18 before their first court appearance.

My Lords, the courts are working to prioritise trials involving youth defendants, particularly when they involve a child who is about to turn 18. When a child turns 18 after an offence is committed but before they appear in court, they must be tried as an adult. However, guidelines state that in these cases courts should use as a starting point a sentence that would have been given at the time the offence was committed.

My Lords, delays, backlogs and where you live can mean that a defendant who commits an offence under the age of 18 but who does not attend their first court appearance before their 18th birthday is treated differently from those who get to court before they turn 18. Through no fault of their own, those defendants miss out on receiving the valuable specialist youth court provision and sentences, especially referral orders, which can be vital in the rehabilitation and turning around of a young person’s life and which I have witnessed as a former youth magistrate. Will the Government consider reviewing this unfair anomaly?

My noble friend is correct that under current legislation, the date of the hearing determines whether the defendant appears in a youth court or in an adult court. However, she should not draw the wrong conclusion. Measures exist in adult courts to support defendants who are particularly vulnerable, and throughout court proceedings consideration is given to the age of the defendant. Like referral orders in youth courts, community order requirements for adults can also be tailored to address an offender’s needs and support their rehabilitation. Finally, HMCTS is working to increase the throughput of cases in the courts and, while listing is a matter for the judiciary, youth cases have been prioritised to ensure that they are listed as expediently as possible, especially when a child is almost 18.

My Lords, the most recent official data show that 1,400 offences a year are committed by children who turn 18 prior to the trial. That number is rising, to some extent understandably, because of Covid delays, which means that the flexibilities and some of the specialities of the youth justice system are lost to these defendants. It is a serious issue. What are the Government doing, particularly with regard to the backlog because of Covid?

The youth justice working group, chaired by the judicial lead on youth justice, has been set up exactly to reduce the impact of Covid-19 delays on the youth court and trials involving youths in the Crown Court. This group continues to meet regularly to carefully monitor the youth recovery programme, and its highlight for this year is to continue to make sure that the lists are as low as possible for a child, particularly if they are just about to turn 18.

My Lords, are the Government considering raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12? These 10 and 11 year-olds usually come from seriously dysfunctional backgrounds and need help in the care system rather than convictions or findings of guilt.

I have no information that the age will rise from 10 to 12 but that may be debated in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is in the other place and will be coming to this House shortly.

Not enough is known about the number or experience of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma young people in the criminal justice system except that the number is significantly large in relation to their very small population. Is the Minister aware of a recent Justice report on racial disparity in the experience of young people in the criminal justice system? In particular, would she endorse its recommendation that the Ministry of Justice collects and makes available all data to a much greater extent, and endorse recommendation 16—that the criminal justice agencies should improve their relationship with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community groups and follow the Traveller Movement recommendation on how to do so?

The noble Baroness is correct about the report, which I read for another Question I was answering quite recently. Absolutely—every effort should be made by the whole of the judicial system to work with the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. We want a justice system that is fair and open and where no person suffers discrimination.

My Lords, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is right to raise the question of the age of criminal responsibility, which at 10 years is the lowest in this part of the world. Can the Minister look at the Private Member’s Bill which I promoted previously in this House, and which had a safe passage, to see what lessons could be learned to ensure that young people do not end up in the criminal justice system?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: we need to keep an eye on timings and where these communities are. However, we also need to make sure that we do everything we possibly can through education and support to make sure that children do not come into the system in the first place.

My Lords, the backlog in the national referral mechanism was growing before the first lockdown and has grown at a faster rate during the past year. How long can youths and youth courts expect to wait for an NRM review, and does the Minister agree that excessive waits are not in the interests of justice or of the youths concerned?

The Government are working to achieve quicker and more certain decision-making for victims of modern slavery but also youths. The Single Competent Authority was launched in April 2019 to handle all national referral mechanism cases and to provide high-quality, timely decisions for victims. There has been a significant ongoing recruitment of SCA decision-makers to address timescales. There are no set timescale or target decisions to be made; the SCA can make a conclusive grounds decision only when sufficient information has been made available by the parties involved in all cases.

My Lords, part of the problem with all the delays and children becoming adults before they go to court is because the Conservative Government massively cut funding to courts. The Minister comes from the Ministry of Justice but this is a clear injustice. What will the Ministry of Justice do about it?

I think I have answered this question once before. HMCTS is working to clear the youth court backlog at pace. The magistrates’ courts, where most youth cases are heard, disposed of more cases than they received from August 2020, which has led to a reduction in the outstanding caseload.

[Inaudible]—the Minister to my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss indicates that the important question of the age of criminal responsibility may be raised in the Bill which is at present in the other place.

I do not think I heard the whole question from the noble Lord, but if it is about the age in law, I have answered that question before. If that is an issue, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is coming from the other place shortly, will be the place to discuss it fully in this House.

My Lords, when there is an admission of guilt and the offender is under 18 at the date of disposal, there is a strong presumption in favour of diverting to an out-of-court disposal. This does not apply if the offender reaches their 18th birthday after the crime occurred but before their first court appearance. Does the Minister not agree that that is arbitrary, unjust and probably not in the public interest? How difficult would it be to correct the anomaly?

The noble Lord has a point here, but the youth courts look after very young children, who have very different needs from young adults. Special measures exist in the youth courts that are intended to protect young children. Throughout court proceedings, however, consideration is given to the age of the defendant, whatever it is, including in the adult courts. It is important that we realise that there are systems within the adult courts to look after these young people. But the noble Lord is correct in saying that this is an issue that needs to be discussed, and I suggest that it should be discussed in the passage of the forthcoming Bill.