Joining youth and family courts

Experts assess the barriers to integrated youth and family courts system following Munby intervention.

The country's most senior family court judge has called for youth and family courts to be amalgamated, reigniting a debate that dates back almost 30 years.

In a recent speech to the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir James Munby, president of the High Court's Family Division, said youth courts should be integrated into an expanded family court system. He also advocates moving to a "problem-solving" court approach, where judges have greater powers to put support in place to tackle problems.

Both measures would be more effective than the current system in ensuring the welfare of children, young people and families, he says.

Last year's Taylor review of the youth justice system called for greater educational support for young offenders to prevent reoffending. Meanwhile, Ministry of Justice research in October highlighted links between a family's welfare needs and youth offending.

Youth justice experts assess how an amalgamated youth and family court system could work and what barriers would need to be overcome for it to be effective.

Single panel a first step

By Tim Bateman, reader in youth justice, University of Bedfordshire

Recognition of the distinct status of children, irrespective of needs or behaviour, implies a reconfiguration of youth justice mechanisms to align them to other children's services rather than, as at present, formally separated from them.

Yet a note of caution is warranted. Before endorsing a return to a single jurisdiction, the rationale for splitting it should be reviewed. There were legitimate concerns about the potential of stigma, which too readily attaches to child defendants, extending to those in need of care and protection; conversely, there was considerable evidence that children in trouble frequently received harsher punishment than was merited by their offending because of extensive welfare needs. It may be that safeguards could be designed to mitigate such unintended consequences but history suggests that a single jurisdiction is not unproblematic and would require careful implementation.

This should not preclude short-term advances towards a more child-friendly system. One, eminently sensible, step towards Munby's vision would be for magistrates serving the family and youth courts to form a single panel, in recognition of the fact that child defendants are indeed children, in preference to the current system which allocates a subset of adult criminal magistrates to youth proceedings.

Resolve offenders' problems

By Richard White, for the youth justice group, The Michael Sieff Foundation

The Children Act 1989 produced a system that co-ordinated public and private law as it affected children and the courts dealing with it. It was decided that youth justice would be excluded from the Children Act 1989 - in addition to being a task too large at that time, there were concerns about the extent this might lead to unwanted decriminalisation.

The systems are disorganised, too complex and serve far too many different and often conflicting objectives to be effective in furthering the welfare of children and their families.

The overlapping populations should be dealt with in one court and both jurisdictions should have the power to adopt an approach that identifies and seeks to resolve the problems leading to the court appearance. In cases where there are parallel proceedings in different courts involving the same child, cases should be listed simultaneously before suitably "cross-ticketed" judges or magistrates.

The youth court should be given a power similar to that in section 37 of Children Act 1989 to order children's services to investigate whether a child is at risk of suffering significant harm, and whether the local authority should intervene to safeguard and promote the child's welfare. The courts should be able to order other relevant services, including health and education, to provide necessary support to child defendants and their family.

Address children's need for care

By John Drew, senior associate, Prison Reform Trust

Munby's idea could work better [than the current system], but the changes need to go beyond this.

Youth courts have achieved much. But a sizeable proportion of children in the youth court require their need for proper care to be addressed rather than being criminalised. The current system makes this switch almost impossible. Courts need the power to suspend criminal proceedings while care needs are considered. Simply amalgamating courts would not make this inevitable but it could be part of a reform programme.

Munby's other proposal, that courts dealing with children should adopt a "problem-solving approach" like the Family Drug and Alcohol Courts, is probably more important. In a "problem solving" justice system sentences would be based on multi-disciplinary therapeutic interventions tailored to meet needs, and there would be regular judicial monitoring to ensure that the help required was being provided and used.

Could these changes happen? Not immediately; because of parliament's focus on Brexit. But Munby is adding his significant voice to the criticism already made by Lord Carlile and others of the youth court. The more we talk about the weaknesses of a punishment-only mindset in helping children desist from offending the more likely it is that the head of steam for reform will build.

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