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Criminal Care? · 3 Oct 2019

Improving legal representation at the police station

Last week we launched Representing looked-after children at the police station: a step-by-step guide for lawyers at Garden Court Chambers in London. The guide was written in collaboration with colleagues at the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC), which is part of Just for Kids Law. It will, we hope, not only prove essential reading for lawyers but also for other adults who work with children in police custody such as custody officers, social workers, care workers and appropriate adults.

The guide provides a unique resource for criminal defence lawyers representing looked-after children. Drawing on the latest policy and research together with legal expertise from specialist lawyers at the Howard League and the YJLC, it offers an essential combination of law and practical guidance for working with and supporting looked-after children. The aim is to ensure that children receive the best legal representation and any additional support they need in order to divert them away from the criminal justice system for the long-term.

A report published earlier this week by the Magistrates Association highlighted how poor legal representation can be a contributing factor to poorer criminal justice outcomes for children. This report was concerned with the disproportionate representation of children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds but the headline message can apply equally, albeit differently, to children in residential care. Because of the special circumstances of this group of children, the quality of legal representation can not only affect criminal justice outcomes but it can also impact on looked-after children’s experiences in custody, the support they receive on leaving custody and the long-term emotional and psychological effects of being arrested and held at the police station.

The job of a child criminal defence lawyer is a complex one and those advocating for children should be specialists

Many children will have a parent to champion them at the police station. Few parents will, of course, have legal expertise but many will be pushing for the best legal advice for their child and trying to get their child released as quickly as possible. Importantly, they can provide support during custody and on release. Children in residential care are much less likely to have a parent or other trusted adult on hand when they are arrested. They may have to wait hours to have a stranger appointed as their appropriate adult. They may not have anyone who cares what happens to them while they are in custody, how long they are held or how they are feeling. They are likely to have longer and harsher experiences of custody than other children[1] and they are much more likely to get a conviction or caution (click here for the figures); Good representation at the police station can mitigate against all of this disadvantage.

The job of a child criminal defence lawyer is a complex one, which is why it is so essential that those advocating for children in trouble with the law are specialists. There is a raft of law and guidance scattered across a multitude of legal instruments and other documents, reflecting the haphazard way in which the youth justice system has developed. It isn’t enough to know about the criminal law; you also need to have an awareness of, for example, local authorities’ legal obligations to the children in their care. In addition to this, you will need to have policy and research knowledge, for example, about levels of criminalisation, factors leading to criminalisation of looked-after children and about some of the many issues that may be affecting this group of children. This knowledge can be important in a number of ways: it can aid understanding of and communication with the child; it can inform the type of information used in representations and it can help you identify and put in motion any support or safeguarding needs the child may have.

We hope that our guide will further highlight the complexity of representing children in trouble with the law and the benefits of specialisation. YJLC have been campaigning for a number of years for all lawyers who act for children in trouble with the law to be specialists with appropriate legal and additional skills training (for example, specialist communication skills). The Bar Standards Board now requires all barristers working in the Youth Court and those who intend to do so in the next 12 months, to register with it and declare that they have the specialist skills, knowledge and attributes necessary to work effectively with young people. It describes youth advocacy as a “high-risk” area of work and states that variability of youth advocacy in the past has meant that “the interests of some of the most vulnerable people within the criminal justice system were not being adequately represented.”[2]

The Solicitors Regulation Authority is lagging behind in its failure to introduce equivalent requirements for solicitors.

We presented the guide and talked about the role of children’s homes staff in supporting children at the police station at two recent events for children’s homes managers and owners in Central Bedfordshire. Both groups are organising appropriate adult training for care workers as a result. We’ll talk more about these events and good practice in Central Bedfordshire in next week’s blog.

We will be presenting the guide at three Legal Friends Society conferences over the next month in Manchester (11 October), Birmingham (18 October) and London (25 October). Click here for more details.

Claire Sands

[1] Bevan,  M.  (2019a) Views  from  the  cells.  Blog  post  dated  31  October  2018.



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