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Children’s charities urge action over youth court advocacy standards

Children: Advocates need specialist skills

Children’s charities have criticised the failure to take forward recommendations that youth court advocates receive mandatory training to ensure they have the right skills.

The coalition of 90 charities – led by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England – said some vulnerable children were not receiving adequate representation as a result.

The comments came in a report [1] issued to mark the start of the process of assessing the extent to which the UK is fulfilling its obligations under the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child. It sets out civil society’s top concerns for the UN to investigate.

Overall, the report argued that children’s rights have regressed in many areas since the UN’s last examination in 2016.

It noted that legal aid was unavailable for many children and families, and described the exceptional case legal aid funding scheme as “woefully inadequate”.

“Since 2013, at least 6,000 children each year have been denied free legal advice and representation (the figure could be as high as 15,000). This affects many children, including those unlawfully excluded from schools, and is hard to access in SEND appeals.”

The report said standards of legal representation in the youth court were variable “and therefore the interests of some of the most vulnerable children are not being adequately represented”.

Despite an independent review published by the Ministry of Justice in 2016 recommending the introduction of mandatory training for all lawyers appearing in the youth court, “this has not been taken forward”.

Among the questions the report urges the UN to ask are how it expects children to access free legal advice and representation in areas where it has removed legal aid, how it will reform the exceptional case funding scheme to make it easier for children to apply, and “what steps are being taken to ensure those representing vulnerable children have the specialist skills and expertise to do so”.

In July, the Solicitors Regulation Authority ditched a proposal [2] that youth court advocates would need higher rights when acting in a case which would have gone to the Crown Court if an adult was involved.

However, it will introduce random sampling of the training records of solicitors practising in the youth courts next summer.

In 2017, the Bar Standards Board introduced compulsory registration [3] of youth court barristers, but not compulsory training. Barristers have to declare that they have the specialist skills, knowledge and attributes necessary to work effectively with young people.