Youth courts: a problem-solving approach

Blackburn Magistrates' Court is one of the first to try a problem-solving approach to work with young offenders in an effort to improve their wellbeing and cut reoffending rates. Jo Stephenson investigates.

Opened in 1912, Blackburn Magistrates' Court is a grey stone edifice that looms over its town centre location.

Arriving at the imposing listed building to appear before magistrates is a daunting experience for anyone, let alone a young person up before youth court for the first time.

"It was horrible," says Sarah*, recalling her first appearance aged 14 or 15. "I didn't think it was right the youths sat in the same waiting room as the adults. It was intimidating."

Although it was altogether an uncomfortable experience, that was not enough to prevent Sarah appearing before Blackburn's youth panel several more times for various antisocial behaviour offences.

Since then things have changed for those attending youth court in Blackburn, one of the first in the UK to trial a problem-solving approach for young offenders.

The partnership project between the magistrates' court and Blackburn with Darwen Youth Justice Service has not only strived to make the court experience "more young person friendly" but, crucially, ensure young offenders get extra support and advice on the spot that will hopefully mean they will not be seen in court again.

The initiative, which won the CYP Now Youth Justice award in 2016, was the brainchild of Helen Meanwell, then deputy justice clerk for East Lancashire.

Inspired by problem-solving approaches in adult courts, she was keen to "take it one stage further and tailor it specifically for youths, parents and other family members attending court with them".

"For me it was a golden opportunity to engage with young people in a way we'd never done before," she says. "Young people - while waiting in court - are probably the most motivated to change at any time in their lives and it seemed a shame we didn't do anything for them."

She shared her vision with Glenda Astley - area team manager for the youth justice service. "I said ‘It sounds brilliant - let's do it'," recalls Astley.

They started by seeking the views of young offenders on the youth court experience and the things they would like to see changed.

"I was surprised at how insightful they were and how mature in terms of their suggestions," says Meanwell, who believes involving young people in this way really has been the secret to the initiative's success.

Meetings with the young people were attended by magistrates, including the chair of the youth panel, and court officials among others. The young participants had many suggestions about both the court facilities and the information and support on offer.

They said they sometimes struggled to get a private room so the problem-solving court project now has a dedicated space with the decor and furnishings chosen by young people, who also designed the restorative justice posters that adorn the walls.

The custody cells were steam cleaned after young people said they were dirty. Elsewhere, a vending machine was installed.

In particular, the young people said they did not know what to do or who to talk to when they first arrived.

"We had done posters but they wanted something that really hit you as you walked in," says Astley. So a large banner devised by young people is now displayed prominently, and the project has also developed the B Calm B Cool guide, which explains about the court process in terms young people will be familiar with.

As well as young people sharing things that annoyed or upset them, the process was a chance to explain the reasons why some things could not be changed such as getting security checked every time they entered the court building.

When it came to the support available, young people wanted to know why they often had to wait for help with various problems.

Now a range of organisations regularly attend weekly youth court days including those that can help with housing, substance misuse, careers and debt advice, and family support, meaning immediate referrals can be made.

"The parents are often so grateful - one came in the other week and said ‘I need some support, I'm struggling' so a referral was made right away to the Supporting Families Project," says Astley.

The approach is not meant to distract young people from the fact they may have done something wrong and are in court to answer for their actions. However, Astley believes it makes the process "more hopeful and helpful".

This seems to be working. Since the problem-solving court approach was introduced the reoffending rate has dropped. In the quarter up to 31 January this year, 83 per cent successfully completed their sentence without reoffending, up from 70 per cent when the project first started in September 2014.

Among organisations that regularly attend youth court sessions is youth homelessness charity Nightsafe.

Only a minority of young people coming before the court have problems with accommodation but where there is a housing issue it is usually quite serious, explains Carol Greenwood, whose role at Nightsafe is to give advice and guidance to 16- to 18-year-olds facing homelessness.

"The bureaucracy involved for a 16- or 17-year-old who is homeless and facing court is an absolute nightmare and I help them through that and explain where they need to go and when," she says.

Some young people who have come through the problem-solving court have made use of Nightsafe's emergency night shelter or been referred to one of the charity's two supported housing projects.

Greenwood says having organisations on hand together means they can provide a collaborative approach "rather than everybody duplicating things or contradicting each other".

It has made partnership working in general easier because organisations know exactly who to contact should a particular issue arise.

Nevertheless, she admits it "is a big commitment for a small charity to go every week".

"The thing that makes it easiest for me as a partner agency going to court - when it is not bread and butter to be there - is when information is shared beforehand," she says.

Where possible the project shares court lists in advance so organisations can see if there is likely to be anyone who may need their services.

Ruth Young, a young person's worker with Go2 - Blackburn with Darwen Young People's Drug and Alcohol Service - agrees the approach has improved links between organisations and timely referrals.

All young people who get a court order will have a general health assessment anyway for substance misuse, physical health and emotional health.

But young people often turned up not knowing what to expect. For Young, the problem-solving court model is a chance to introduce herself and her service beforehand.

According to her, the majority of young people coming through the youth court have experimented with cannabis and alcohol or been a regular user.

When so-called legal highs - known as NPS (new psychoactive substances) - became popular there was an "influx" of young people using them.

"All three - alcohol, cannabis, NPS - at some point may have contributed to why they were coming to the youth offending service whether that was for drunk and disorderly behaviour, or robbery or burglary linked to substance misuse," says Young.

Young people may come to court and no further action is taken but they too can be offered support "which otherwise they might not have been able to access or know where to access", says Young.

Parents and carers can find out about the process their child is going through and what support they themselves could get, such as Go2's carers service for parents of children using substances.

Meanwhile, adults who have their own substance misuse problems can also be swiftly signposted for help from the wider Inspire service of which Go2 is a part. An open access drop-in is literally around the corner from the court. "I say to them ‘once you have finished here why don't you pop round' - it is a dead easy process to follow," says Young.

There is no guarantee young people or their families will take up the services on offer but the fact agencies are still showing up two and half years after the project started shows there is value in it for them, says Astley.

There are quarterly review meetings and ongoing work with young people, who recently created some new artwork for the project's room at court.

Sarah, now aged 17, has not experienced the new set-up. "I've not been in trouble for well over a year", she explains. She is back in a stable foster placement, attending college and also has a part-time job. "I honestly never thought I would be able to change or get where I am now," she says.

Importantly, she has had a lot of support including help to address substance misuse and mental health problems.

Had some of this been in place from the moment she first popped up at youth court she believes she may have been able to turn things around sooner.

"I'd definitely not have gone back so many times," she says. "The more people there are to support you, the more help you get to make the right decisions. If you have people that tell you ‘you can change' it makes a difference."

She liked being asked to give her opinions and feels good her input has made a difference to other young people.

"You appreciate it because it makes you feel they do care what we think about it all," she says.

Glenda Astley wants the problem-solving court to evolve and there are already plans afoot to spread it to youth courts across Lancashire.

Burnley youth court recently closed with cases moving to Blackburn so the first step is getting support agencies from Burnley to attend.

"This is just the start for us - we want to be a 100 per cent problem-solving court in all that problem solving entails," says Astley.

Meanwell, who is now acting justice clerk for Cumbria and Lancashire, is also interested in developing the model once the basics are in place.

Going forward this could mean magistrates getting more involved in finding solutions for young people with difficult lives "bringing what's out on the corridor into the discussion within the courtroom", she says.

However, support on offer to young people on court days is entirely voluntary. "One thing we have got to be a bit careful about doing is requiring them to do things," says Meanwell.

Young people said they would like more opportunities to speak to magistrates directly.

"Magistrates already engage directly with young people to a great extent, but anything we can do to increase that engagement would be really good," says Meanwell.

"The problem-solving approach gives a platform for that to happen."

*Name changed

The case for wider use of problem solving in youth courts

By Ben Estep, Centre for Justice Innovation

Recent years have seen a welcome decline in the size of the youth justice system in England and Wales. In 2006, nearly 111,000 young people received a first caution from police or a conviction in court. A decade later in 2016, that figure was just over 18,000 - an 84 per cent reduction.

Research shows young people who enter the youth justice system tend to remain in the system. Keeping young people out, therefore, has benefits now and into the future. We cannot claim to entirely understand the root causes of the drop in numbers entering the system. Proposed explanations include changes in police practice, more use of diversion, and shifts in the behaviour of young people. Nevertheless it is a great development.

But there is a paradox within this success. Those children and young people remaining in the criminal justice system are "on balance, more challenging to work with", according to the Ministry of Justice. Quantitative data shows an increase in the average number of previous offences per young person and rising re-offending rates, albeit among a much smaller population. Meanwhile, practitioners are struck by the concentration of complex, underlying needs driving the behaviour they are trying to address.

Youth courts - specialist magistrates' courts for young people aged 10 to 17 - still hear a significant number of cases (31,000 cases in 2015). All the young people involved need effective supervision and rehabilitation. Challenges facing youth courts are not limited to changes in the young people coming before them. The drop in volume has also meant many magistrates trained to sit on youth panels get less opportunity to do so and worry about the erosion of their skills and there are concerns about declining specialisation among other youth court practitioners. Alongside this, cuts in funding to the established model of supervision and intervention through youth offending teams have created challenges for those engaged in tackling the offending behaviour of children.

But within this context there are also opportunities. We now have a chance to rethink how youth courts can adjust to their new reality, better support vulnerable young people, and more actively prevent reoffending. One proposed response to the challenge is the enhancement of problem solving within youth court.

What is problem solving?

Problem-solving courts encompass a large range of court models, seeking to address and resolve a wide variety of issues. The way problem solving is implemented differs significantly from court to court and model to model, but the approach always includes a number of the following elements:

  • Specialisation - targeting a specific population; using specialised assessments; conducting specialised court proceedings involving specially-trained court professionals.
  • Collaborative intervention and supervision - use of strengths-based approaches; co-ordinated case management.
  • Fairness - emphasising clear understanding, respectful treatment, and neutrality; involving clients in the process and ensuring they have a voice in proceedings.
  • Accountability - judicial monitoring of compliance; use of a structured regime of incentives and sanctions.
  • Focus on outcomes - monitoring results and using findings to improve services.

In the adult criminal justice system, thousands of these courts operate around the world and many demonstrate impressive evidence of effectiveness. There is limited evidence regarding the comparative effectiveness of specific problem-solving court models. However, research suggests the core elements of the problem-solving approach may help courts better address youth offending.

Problem-solving practice in youth courts

The principal aim of the youth court is to prevent offending while having regard for the welfare of the child. Rather than simply imposing a sentence proportionate to an offence, youth courts should seek "intervention that tackles particular factors that lead youths to offend," according to the Judicial College's Youth Court Bench Book. The goals of problem-solving courts - including individualised behaviour correction, harm reduction, and community wellbeing - are historically bound up with the movement that created the first youth courts in England and the United States at the turn of the 20th century. This means many principles of problem solving are already embedded, at least in aspiration, in youth courts today.

Youth court is by its nature targeted. Proceedings are partially informed by youth-specific assessments and cases are heard by specialist magistrates and district judges, often within an adapted courtroom setting intended to promote engagement. New guidelines from the Sentencing Council also instruct courts to look in greater detail at the background and individual circumstances of each child and young person before them.

However, the Centre for Justice Innovation has also identified specific components of current youth court practice we believe could be enhanced. These include:

Procedural fairness People's feelings regarding the legitimacy of authority are closely tied to their perceptions of the fairness of the justice system process. This is in turn strongly associated with future adherence to the law. It is important for youth courts to develop a better understanding of the court experience from the perspective of court users in order to improve understanding and boost engagement with the court process.

Enhanced specialisation Individualised assessment and treatment targeted at young people's specific risk factors has been shown to be effective in promoting rehabilitation and reintegration. This suggests assessments and interventions in youth proceedings should be tailored as closely as possible to the populations they serve.

Enhanced accountability Accountability matters to young people. Post-sentence reviews, where the court continues to be involved in monitoring a person's progress are a very common component of problem solving court models. Using the sentence itself to hold offenders accountable, as well as engage them in a consistent and meaningful process of supervision, can have a particularly strong impact on compliance and reduced reoffending.

We believe enhancing these principles within the existing multi-agency supervision practice of youth offending teams and using them in combination to develop a more welfare-oriented approach to youth offending is likely to produce better outcomes. Happily, this approach has broad policy support, including in Charlie Taylor's review of the youth justice system, and in the government's response, which supports "adopting, where possible, the characteristics of a problem-solving approach".

A number of sites - including Blackburn Magistrates' Court - are already applying additional problem-solving principles over and above the mainstream youth court offer. This suggests there may be local appetite and aptitude for further development of problem solving across youth courts in England and Wales.

Opportunities and challenges

The Centre for Justice Innovation and the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, plan to work with youth courts in three sites interested in developing, improving, and testing adaptations to existing practice. We will work closely with key stakeholders in the three areas to identify what kinds of problem-solving practice can best meet the changing needs of children and young people involved in the youth justice system in those areas, help them implement these models and lay the foundations for independent evaluation.

While the approaches taken in each area will be tailored to specific local problems, configuration of services and assets, we hope the project will provide lessons that can be applied nationally.

There is no doubt youth courts face a substantial challenge. But it is important to bear in mind this challenge is, in large part, due to the success of the system as a whole. A smaller, more appropriately targeted youth justice system should only see children and young people in court as a last resort. For these complex and vulnerable young people, there are positive signs that enhancing problem-solving practice can help improve outcomes.

  • Ben Estep is youth justice programme manager at the Centre for Justice Innovation. For more information about the centre and updates on its work on youth courts go to


Number of first-time entrants to the criminal justice system in the year up to March 2016

Number of proven offences by young people - a 74% reduction in the past decade

Number of young people sentenced in the year up to March 2016 in England and Wales - 1,700 were sentenced to immediate custody

Proportion of young people in custody for serious offences - violence against the person, robbery and sexual offences - up from 52% in the year ending March 2011

Reoffending rate among young people

Number of offences committed by young people who reoffended - an average of 3.3 offences each

Source: Youth Justice Statistics 2015/2016, England and Wales, Ministry of Justice/Youth Justice Board

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