How should courts decide what to do with children in trouble? Sir James Munby the President of the Family Division told a seminar held by the National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) that he has some ideas. He’d like to see a one stop shop which would make decisions currently determined in the separate jurisdictions of the youth courts, immigration tribunals and family courts. The new court would adopt an approach which grappled with the wide range of personal, family and social difficulties which lie behind delinquency and other childhood problems.
Such a problem-solving approach has been shown to work well with in the Family Drug and Alcohol court where evaluation has shown that for every pound spent £2.30 is saved. He’d also like courts given powers to require authorities to provide the services they judge are needed for individual children. Munby recognised the challenge this posed to existing doctrine on the separation of powers but felt these would be outweighed by real world benefits. Making the kind of stand he did in the Re X case- warning that society would have blood on its hands unless a secure clinical placement was found for a highly distressed young woman – was not a sustainable way to run the system.
A new court would need guiding principles combining the family court’s emphasis on the best interests of the child with the wider requirements of criminal justice. It could do worse than adopt those developed by Anna- Christina Jones in the different context of her action research with young people in Manchester. Meaningful participation is key along with an approach which aims to understand why children have behaved in the way they have and acknowledges their often limited chances. Working with children to help them solve their problems, find better options for the future and develop their ambitions – while as far as possible avoiding threats and sanctions -are surely the right way forward for youth justice workers. Should they not help guide Munby’s new court too?
A reformed system could not work without a reliable range of services available locally to meet the needs of young people. Shadow Policing Minister Louise Haigh MP argued for much greater expansion of mental health services for both adults and children and for the latter a professional approach which recognises adverse childhood experiences including trauma. Labour is still working up its policy but their “children first, offenders second” philosophy seems a welcome distance from Tony Blair and Jack Straw's “No More Excuses”. For all age groups, we can expect much greater emphasis on diversion from the courts combined with evidence-based interventions.
A children first approach has implications across the system. Joanne Cecil pointed to some rays of light in the culture of the Crown Court where children no longer always sit in a dock, and increasingly benefit from specially trained advocates. The new Chief Justice has made constructive judgements recognising the developing maturity of young people, even those above the age of 18.
How to make it happen? Munby would exclude serious violent offences from his new scheme despite the evidence that many of the young people involved have themselves been victims of abuse and neglect and would benefit from a therapeutic approach. The reason? To make it more palatable. Public attitudes look like a huge roadblock although as Penelope Gibbs has shown, problem solving resonates well.
Money is tight of course. Shockingly Munby admitted that despite his efforts children seldom attend family proceedings with various central and local agencies bickering about who should meet the transport costs. If those modest sums can’t be agreed it seems fanciful to imagine a system in which courts can order more costly interventions to be provided.
Maybe the answer lies in more local devolution. Labour are looking to devolve more- including Probation- to the PCC’s and mayors – as well as cutting the number of police forces. Is the future direction of youth justice a local one?