Children over the age of 10 can appear in criminal courts. Any child or young person charged with a criminal offence and is aged between 10 – 17 years of age will be sent to the Youth Court.
What is the Youth Court?
The Youth court is quite often in the same building as a Magistrates’ Court but it is very different and deliberately so, this is because it has been specifically adapted to meet the needs of any child and young people who appear before it.
Can youths be sent to the Crown Court?
Some offences are so serious that they will always have to be transferred from the Youth Court the Crown Court. This would be when:
- A youth is accused of a homicide (murder and manslaughter).
- A youth is accused of a firearms offences where a minimum statutory sentence that has to be imposed in law.
- A notice is given that in the case there is evidence of a fraud of such seriousness or complexity that the management of the case should be taken over by the Crown Court.
- The DPP gives notice that a child will be called as a witness and for the purpose of avoiding any prejudice to the welfare of the child the case should be taken over and proceeded with in the Crown Court.
- The youth is charged with an offence where it appears to the court an extended sentence is needed as the youth is a dangerous offender (there is legislation as to those criminal offences that can qualify for such a sentence and there is a statutory definition of “dangerous”).
- The youth has been charged with a grave crime and the court takes the view that if the child or young person were to be convicted, then the sentence imposed is likely to be longer than the court is capable of imposing.
What is a grave crime?
An offence is considered a grave crime if the maximum sentencing powers for the offence is 14 years imprisonment or more.
What are the sentencing powers of the Youth Court?
The greatest sentence the youth court can pass is 24 months detention. This is far higher than the Magistrates’ Court and this is why they can retain cases which you might normally think have to be sent to the Crown Court, although it’s not the only reason that the Youth Court is often the preferred court for a youth accused of a criminal offence. Detention is always considered the last option especially for a youths.
Children and young people will be dealt with less severely than an adult offender and when considering the appropriate sentence the court must have regards to:
- The welfare of the child or young person
- The principle aim of the youth justice system which is to prevent offending of those under 18.
The court must of course balance these aims against the seriousness of the offence and the likelihood of the young person committing further offences.
What type of cases can be dealt with in the Youth Court?
Youth law is quite complicated and that’s why solicitors who work with children and young people in the criminal justice system specialise in this area.
A straightforward example would be when a young person who appears in court is accused of common assault. Because the offence has a maximum legal penalty of 6 months imprisonment, it’s not a grave crime and so the case can only be dealt with in the Youth Court. If the allegation was causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do so, this is a far more serious assault allegation and it carries for an adult a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. So, the allegation is considered a grave crime because it carries a maximum sentence higher than 14 years imprisonment or more. This means that when a child or young person appears before them charged with such an offence, the Youth Court would have to consider if the case should stay in the Youth Court or be sent to the Crown Court. They will do this by trying to predict the sentence that might be imposed if the child or young person is convicted.
This prediction is not an indication of sentence. If the court felt that a sentence above their maximum sentencing powers would be justified (when taking into account the principles of youth sentencing) they will send the case to the Crown Court. If, they feel that any sentence would fall within their sentencing powers they will keep it and deal with it in the Youth Court.
How are Youth Courts adapted?
The court and those who appear in it are trained in the principles of youth justice and the court will aim to engage with the child and young person and their parent/ guardian or carer.
The court is made to be less formal. The court will aim to adapt its language according to the age the child or young person and their understanding.
The court ideally will have a separate entrance from the adult word and separate waiting area. When the court is sitting it is not open to members of the public and only those involved in the proceedings will go into court but members of the press are entitled to be in the Youth Court but reporting restrictions apply to most proceedings. The name, address or school of any child appearing before the court cannot be published.
Who will be in the court?
The parent/ guardian or carer for the child or young person must attend with them if they are under the age of 17 and there is an expectation that they should attend if the young person has attained the age of 17. The court has the power to summons a parent/ guardian to court and can impose parenting orders.
Other people in the court would include the Judge or Magistrates, the court clerk, the prosecutor, the defence lawyer and members of the Youth offending Team.
What happens if the child or young person pleads not guilty?
If the child or young person say they are not guilty of the offence then there will have to be a trial which the court will list in their diary for another day (provided it is not being sent to the Crown Court).
A trial will involve the prosecution asking the court to listen to the evidence they rely on which they say suggests the child or young person is guilty of the offence. The child or young person, through their lawyer can ask questions of the witnesses and they can also give evidence to the court themselves and call witnesses to help their case.
The court cannot find the child or young person guilty until they are sure they are guilty. If they are not sure they must find them not guilty.
The people who will decide if the child or young person is guilty or not guilty will be a District Judge or three lay Magistrates. There is no jury in the Youth Court.
What happens if a youth pleads guilty?
There are a range of different sentences the court can pass such as:
- Absolute discharge
- Conditional discharge
- Referral order
- Reparation order
- Youth Rehabilitation Order
- Detention Training Order (this is a custodial sentence).
Can my child go to prison?
A Detention Training Order (DTO) has a period of detention followed by a period of supervision in the community. There are strict rules about when it is appropriate for a detention training order to be passed. Children aged 12 – 14 can only receive a DTO in the Youth Court if they are deemed to be persistent offenders. If a child is aged 10 – 11 they cannot be sentenced to a DTO by the Youth Court. It is rare for a child so young to be sent into detention. If the crime is so serious that it would call for it, the case will be dealt with by the Crown Court.
In terms of where a child goes, they go to Youth Detention Accommodation. This consists of secure children’s homes, secure training centres and young offender institutions.
Those aged 10 and 11 would be sent to secure children’s homes. If older children are considered vulnerable (up to the age of 15) they too can be sent to secure children’s homes. Girls aged 12 – 17 and boys aged 12 – 14 will be sent to secure training centres. If boys aged 15 – 17 are vulnerable they too will be sent to secure training centres.
Boys aged 15 – 17 who are not considered vulnerable will be sent to a Young Offender Institution.
When a child or young person has been charged with a very grown up criminal offence, they are still exceptionally vulnerable in the court process because of their age and the fact their whole future is at stake.
Young people are more impulsive than adults and often mistakes made at a young age will not be repeated as they mature. The justice system has also found that a large percentage of children and young people who become involved in crimes are vulnerable. This is why the sentencing principles for children and young people are different to those for adults offenders. It’s all the reason why the best interest of the child is a central principle of the youth justice system. It’s important to remember that even if the criminal proceedings are sent to the Crown Court, these principles will still be applied.