BLOG: The Impact of COVID-19 on Youth Justice: Reflections of a Defence Solicitor

Caroline Liggins, Solicitor and Chair of the Youth Practitioners’ Association, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on children in the youth justice system.

“From schools closing to social isolation, there is no question that children in England are being severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Children involved with the youth justice system are facing unique challenges at this trying time, including some being locked up for nearly 23 hours a day in detention training centres.

The rule of law, underpinned by a healthy and effective justice system, is a key pillar of our society but sadly long before the COVID-19 outbreak our youth justice system was already struggling. Now the system is having to adapt and operate at an even more limited capacity with over 700 cases waiting to be dealt with.

Trial Delays

The biggest challenge is the huge delay in trials being heard. This has a knock-on effect on the mental health of children who continue to be subject to bail conditions or are on remand for longer than necessary.

We are hearing of a number of cases where children, whose trials had been due to take place imminently, have been put off into the long grass, frequently with bail variations being refused. In one particular case, a variation to allow a child to live with their mum was refused. Delay negatively impacts the lives of these children, many of whom have waited months simply to know if they are to be prosecuted.

The other issue, of course, is that by the time a case does come to trial, witnesses may no longer wish to cooperate, jeopardising proceedings and ultimately meaning that the child has been subject to the mental endurance that a trial brings for no reason. Existing data show that children involved within the youth justice system often struggle with higher rates of behavioural difficulties, sleep problems and mental health issues than other children. There is concern that these delays will exacerbate these disparities. The child could have also served their sentence, and more, by the time they are convicted.

Mental Well-Being

It is well documented that children’s well-being has been declining in this country since at least 2009. The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and its associated impact on daily life continue to have negative consequences for children’s well-being. For young people with mental ill-health, the effects of the virus may be particularly challenging. Currently, one in eight children aged between 5 and 19 in England have a diagnosable mental health condition. Through our interaction with young people, we are aware that the pandemic has resulted in heightened feelings of anxiety and has aggravated mental health conditions such as low mood.

It is well documented that the impact of punishment is felt more heavily by a child or young person. Any sentence will seem longer due to their age. Penal intervention can interfere with a child’s ability to access education and mental and emotional wellbeing providers which will have a detrimental effect on their developmental progress.

Technological Restrictions

Furthermore, while COVID-19 has forced much-needed modernisation in the courts, the wider use of digital technology within the youth court raises questions around access to justice and procedural fairness for children. More worryingly, is the lack of ability for practitioners to be able to interact with their client face-to-face, establish rapport, build confidence and assess whether the child or young person has specific needs that must be addressed and support that they may be lacking. Some children may not manage online interactions well and studies have concluded that children and young people find the formality of the court process overwhelming. Appearing via video link often leads to further feelings of isolation and disengagement which ultimately leaves them feeling like the system is working against them.

An Overlooked Youth Court

There is, of course, a drive on the CPS to review cases. Representations have been made weeks prior to cases coming to court, specifically in relation to young clients, but the CPS drive is focused on Crown Court matters. As a result, Youth Court matters are being overlooked more so than ever and whilst it is not unusual for cases to be reviewed on the day before, or even, day of trial, by this time the child could have spent several weeks or months subject to stringent bail conditions or on remand. The YPA are aware of numerous cases that have had no response or even acknowledgement from the CPS when representations have been made. There are discussions to push the police, courts and the CPS to speed up the process and make it a priority to have cases dealt with before a young person’s 18th birthday whether this is via an out-of-court disposal or the actual completion of the case in court. Youth Courts are specialist in nature and have the rehabilitation of the young person at the forefront of every decision made. Case law suggests that a young person’s circumstances should be taken into consideration (if for example, the offence occurred when they were a child), however, once they turn 18 years of age we know that in the court’s eyes they become a young adult, meaning the court loses any special youth sentencing powers and the young person loses the support available to them.

Suspended Services

For children subject to intervention from the YOT, it has been especially difficult to access educational and healthcare resources during the public health crisis. Many are confined to their homes and will have had services suspended. We are aware through our work that there has been no face-to-face interaction and all contact has been conducted via telephone. For children who are incarcerated these resources are even scarcer, access to face-to-face visits has been suspended and educational facilities have been reduced to such a level that children’s individual learning objectives and needs have been overlooked. Serious concerns have been raised in respect of the custody estate’s response to the public health crisis which has seen very few children released under the early release scheme.

Recovery

Post COVID-19, the criminal justice system will have to adapt in order to address the period of delay and stagnation. We don’t yet know what the full impact of the disease will be on the youth justice system but what is abundantly clear to those working within it is that Covid-19 is the peak of a drastically under-funded and fragmented system with young-people suffering the consequences. The recovery will greatly depend on there being a shift in attitude towards youth justice, which will include the government placing children and young people at the heart of the agenda for effective change.”

By Caroline Liggins, Solicitor and Chair of the Youth Practitioners’ Association

The YPA have also begun a series of online webinars discussing pertinent issues relating to children and young people within the Criminal Justice System.

The first webinar which discusses the HMCPSI’s report on Serious Youth Crime can be viewed here.

Make sure to look out for the second webinar in this series which will be available in August and focuses on Appropriate Adults at the Police Station.