What barristers can do to help decriminalise care

Megan Davies

Megan Davies

Head of Political Engagement

Half of the children detained in Youth Offending Institutes are, or have been, in the care system. That’s despite the fact that children in care make up less than one percent of the child population. Research conducted by the Howard League for Penal Reform has found that unnecessary police call-outs and mental health difficulties are two of the main factors behind this statistic.

Prevention is better than the cure, and our Policy Forum’s criminalisation subgroup has mainly focused on how we can avoid children in care coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. The group has worked extensively with the Metropolitan Police and the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime on ways to achieve this. Forcing carers, social workers and other agents to ask themselves the question ‘Would this be good enough for my child’, our young people helped to write a protocol, released in March this year, aimed at keeping police call-outs as a last resort.

Of course, we must accept that this protocol will not prevent every child in care or care leaver being arrested or ending up in court. Care-experienced children and young people who are going through the court system deserve care, advocacy and support. Being in the care system should not exclude you from having a fair trial. That’s why last month, our Policy Forum’s criminalisation group delivered training to Garden Court chambers, advising criminal barristers on how best to support the care-experienced young people they worked with.

Around 40 barristers attended the training and listened to Policy Forum members’ experiences of being inadequately supported by the criminal justice system. They highlighted the need for barristers to understand that they might be the only real advocate in that young person’s life and to therefore take as much time as possible to work with them. They also stressed the need for barristers to really get to know a young person and their story. With trauma and ‘adverse childhood experiences’ so common to those in care, it is important for legal professionals to understand some of the mitigating factors that their young person may have when helping them to decide on a plea.

“The training increased barristers, solicitors, and legal professionals’ awareness of the acute challenges vulnerable, care-experienced young people face in their journey through the criminal justice system. However, the Policy Forum also learnt so much about the challenges facing barristers in the youth criminal courts. Therefore, we welcome the new relationship that has developed between Garden Court and the Policy Forum. Together, I hope we can work to address shared challenges, improve the national guidance for barristers, and ultimately, reduce the needless criminalisation of care-experienced young people in the system.” – Jordan M. 

Part of the Policy Forum’s mission statement is to ‘build understanding’. By sharing lived experience with barristers who may not otherwise have had the chance to speak directly with care leavers, our Policy Forum did just that. Many barristers who were present at the training have committed to working closely with our members to ensure that legal professionals right across the country can be the best possible advocates for care-experienced young people. 

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