The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has accepted in principle all the recommendations of a hard-hitting report which found “highly variable” standards of advocacy in the youth courts.
Among the recommendations were compulsory specialist training for advocates and a “licensing system” to maintain quality. Among the findings were that only 52% of advocates thought they had sufficient knowledge of the youth justice system to do their job properly.
Only 27% found their work ‘rewarding’ and 38% ‘interesting’. One advocate described work in the youth courts as “very poorly paid, stressful and there is no justice for the young people involved”, while another said it was “grossly underpaid in comparison to similar adult work”.
The research, commissioned by the BSB and CILEx Regulation, was carried out by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck. The Solicitors Regulation Authority decided not to take part, even though much of the work in the youth courts is done by solicitors.
It followed a call last year by parliamentarians for the regulators to put in place accreditation for youth court advocates.
Of the 215 advocates involved, 198 were fully qualified barristers, six pupils and seven chartered legal executives. Researchers also interviewed 25 young defendants and 30 youth justice practitioners, including magistrates, district judges and youth workers.
Asked whether they had sufficient knowledge of the youth justice system to do their job effectively, only 52% of advocates said yes, while 42% replied “to some extent”.
Advocates were much more confident about their ability to communicate effectively with young defendants and witnesses, with 78% saying they did have the necessary skills.
Similarly large majorities said they had the “necessary knowledge” (74%), and the “necessary skills” (83%) to represent defendants under 18 effectively.
The report concluded that the quality of advocacy in the youth courts was “highly variable” and advocates had “limited opportunities” to undertake training.
To counter the “current low status” of the youth court, it recommended that that professional bodies, including the Law Society and Bar Council, should develop a joint strategy, which could include setting up a Youth Justice Bar Association.
The report called for “mandatory training” and a “licensing system” for youth justice advocates, combined with a requirement on the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) only to contract with licensed solicitors.
To tackle problems of communication with young defendants, the report called on the LAA to pay an additional fee to permit the advocate to meet the child or young person between the point of charge and first appearance at court.
It recommended that the LAA should ensure parity in funding between legal representation for serious youth court cases and Crown Court cases of “equivalent seriousness”.
The report also urged the Ministry of Justice and senior judiciary to undertake a review of the existing system of “ticketing” judges to ensure they had “sufficient levels” of expertise.
Sir Andrew Burns, chair of the BSB, said: “We have accepted in principle the recommendations set out in the report and will now focus on how we can improve standards of advocacy amongst barristers working with young offenders. Of course, we will need to do this alongside our counterparts regulating other parts of the legal profession.
“However, because this report also highlights systemic problems with the way in which youth justice is administered, the BSB calls for urgent collaboration between all parties including the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board.”
Sam Younger, chair of CILEx Regulation, added: “The research shows advocates are working in an imperfect environment. How the improvements to the infrastructure around youth court proceedings can be achieved is for others to address, particularly the Ministry of Justice.
“For our part, we accept that we need to ensure CILEx advocates have the right training and the resources for professional development they need to support the Youth Court and work effectively with all young people caught up in criminal proceedings.”