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CBA: Solicitor advocates better than barristers in youth court

Youth justice lessons not learnt 18 years after Bulger trial, says Doughty Street silk

15 May 2017

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Specialist solicitor advocates are better than barristers in cases involving young people, the vice chairman of the Criminal Bar Association told a conference on youth justice last week.

Chairing a panel discussion on children and sexual offences at the first Youth Justice Summit in London, organised by the Youth Justice Legal Centre, Angela Rafferty QC said: ‘The Bar often aren’t very good in the youth court – specialist solicitor advocates are better.’

Rafferty, of Red Lion Chambers, is the course director of the Inns of Court College of Advocacy’s advocacy and the vulnerable training programme, which is currently being rolled out nationwide to improve the way vulnerable defendants and witnesses are treated.

The conference heard concerns about the frequently poor quality of prosecution and defence barristers and solicitors who appear in proceedings involving young defendants at the youth court and crown court, and the lack of knowledge of some senior barristers and judges of the appropriate procedures.

Highlighting the fact that the youth court is still treated by some as a place for junior lawyers to cut their teeth, Eloise Marshall, a barrister at 23 Essex Street chambers, said: ‘It’s a bit of a free for all and it shouldn’t be. You need specialist training if you’re going to deal with these cases.’ The idea of instructing a less experienced barrister because a case is in the youth court is ‘just crazy’, she added.

Sue Green, a district judge at Camberwell Green with more than 30 years’ experience, who is ticketed to do sex cases, said: ‘There are poor advocates on both sides who appear in front of me.’ Noting that more and more serious cases will be dealt with in the youth court, Green said the profile of youth court advocacy needs to be increased.

Henry Blaxland QC, from Garden Court Chambers, told a different session that 18 years after the notorious trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables for the murder of the two-year-old James Bulger, some senior barristers and judges remain unfamiliar with the criminal procedure rules put in place as a result of the trial to accommodate vulnerable defendants.

Blaxland is instructed in an appeal against conviction in which a group of young people were tried in an adult court without the relevant adjustments available.

The fact that the defendants sat together in the dock, he said, lead to the ‘predictable consequence’ of them fighting among themselves during the trial and disruption in the dock – behaviour that resulted in adverse press headlines. It was, he said, the court’s responsibility to exercise caution and guard against this sort of result.

Doughty Street Chambers’ Edward Fitzgerald QC, who represented Venables following his conviction, added: ‘If court procedures and legal principles are properly applied they should go some way to prevent the demonisation of children by the media and others.’

Fitzgerald also told delegates that crown court judges do not always give proper consideration to the welfare of teenage offenders when it comes to sentencing, as they are required to by the sentencing guidelines. ‘If you tell a crown court judge that they have to take into account the welfare of a 16-year-old thug, who has beaten someone on the head, they will pay lip service to the welfare principle,’ he said.

The conference also recognised two specialists for their work representing children and young people, helping drive up standards in youth justice and improve the protection of children’s rights. The inaugural Youth Justice Awards went to ‘established practitioner’ Mark Ashford of TV Edwards and ‘rising star’ Daniella Waddoup of Doughty Street Chambers.

Catherine Baksi is a freelance legal journalist

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