Being prosecuted for a criminal offence in the youth court can be an unpleasant ordeal for a young person or child. But no child or young person should have to go through the youth criminal justice system without someone fighting for them. The most important thing is to find a firm of lawyers who are sensitive, but who are also experienced specialist youth lawyers.
This guide is not a complete guide to absolutely everything that happens to youths in criminal proceedings, but should give the any parents or carers of children an idea of what to expect. If in doubt, we always recommend speaking to a criminal lawyer.
We have also written a free guide for children of around secondary school age or above, telling them how to prepare for a court appearance, and who they will see there. It is meant for older children, but we recommend that even parents and guardians look at it. Click here for this free young person’s guide.
Young People and the Youth Court – Basic Rules for the Youth Criminal Justice System
Children under the age of 10 are too young to be guilty of a criminal offence and so do have to appear in youth court even if they committed an act which for someone older would amount to a criminal offence.
If a youth from the age of 10 to 17 is charged or summoned for an offence, the case will usually be in the youth court, except in certain circumstances.
Youth justice is different from adult justice. The aim of the court is to prevent offending by young people, not punish them. It is supposed to consider the youth’s welfare when making decisions about him or her. The aim of the youth criminal justice system is to rehabilitate but not to punish.
What is a Youth Court?
The youth court is a court for people under 18, and it is part of the magistrates court system. It is normally located at the local magistrates court. Youth cases are often heard in a separate part of the building to make sure that children and young people are kept away from adults who may be appearing in the magistrates court.
Youth courts are normally less formal than adult courts. They are also private and there are strict rules as to who is allowed in. The general public are not admitted.
When does a Youth not get to have their case in the Youth Court?
1) When a Youth is charged together with an adult
If a youth is charged together with an adult, the court will often want the youth and adult to be tried together if the proceedings make more sense that way. This may mean that the youth’s case will be heard in the magistrates or crown court, depending on whether either
he or the defendant choose to go to the crown court, or if the magistrates think the case is too serious for the magistrates. This is one of the practical limitations of the youth criminal justice system and means that sometimes youths end up being dealt with in an adult court anyway.
If the youth is convicted in the adult court or pleads guilty, the adult court will usually send the young person’s case back to the original court so that they can be sentenced as a youth. If the adult pleads guilty or his or her case is discharged and the youth pleads not guilty then the youth’s case may be sent back to the youth court for trial.
2) When a Youth is charged with Homicide (eg, murder, manslaughter etc.) or certain firearms offences
If any youth is charged with homicide they have to be dealt with in the crown court, where the team of youth lawyers representing them may include a barrister. If any 16 or 17 year old youth is charged with an offence covered by section 51A of the Firearms Act 1968 they will have to be sent to the crown court rather than being dealt with in the youth criminal justice system because there is a high minimum sentence if they are found guilty or plead guilty.
3) When the offence is a so-called ‘Grave Crime’
Certain offences that a youth will face in the youth court may be what is commonly known as a grave crime. This means a serious crime. If the court decides that an offence is a grave crime then, even though the youth may not have been charged jointly with an adult, the case may still have to be sent to the crown court to be dealt with. If a case is sent to the crown court as a grave crime the judge at the crown court can sentence the youth outside the limits of the sentencing rules that usually apply in the your criminal justice system. For an offence to be considered a grave crime it has to be either an offence that in the case of an adult carries a maximum sentence of imprisonment of 14 years or more, or is one of a number of sexual offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
In making a decision whether an offence is a grave crime, the youth court will consider whether they have sufficient sentencing powers if the young person pleads guilty or is found guilty. So the test is whether there is a real possibility that a sentence of or in excess of two years is required if the youth is convicted. The youth lawyers representing the client should bear this in mind. He or she should be making representations that the matter is not a grave crime if it is arguable.
4) In the case of a ‘Dangerous Offender’
If it is possible that a youth could be judged a ‘dangerous offender’ then his case should be sent to the crown court. For this to happen the youth would have to have committed a ‘specified offence’ or a ‘serious specified offence’. So-called ‘specified offences’ include many offences involving violence or danger such as Robbery, GBH or Threats to Kill among others. The court would also have to believe that there is a significant risk that the youth would commit further such offences. They would also have to be of the opinion that the sentence the youth would face if convicted would be two years actual time in custody. It is of course to the client’s advantage that the youth lawyers working for him or her battle on his behalf so that he or she is not labelled a ‘dangerous offender’ by the court.