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Youth crime

The criminal justice system treats children and young people differently from adults and significant weight must be attached to the age of the suspect if they are a child or young person under 18.

Age of criminality

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old. This means that children under 10 can’t be arrested or charged with a crime. There are other punishments that can be given to children under 10 who break the law.

Children between 10 and 17 can be arrested and taken to court if they commit a crime.

Identity of children accused of a crime 

The identity of a child aged between 10 and 17 charged with a crime will not be disclosed outside the court. 

Those permitted inside the court include the usual participants in cases heard in court; ranging from officers of the court, to the parties, parents and guardians, and bona fide members of the press. 

Reporting restrictions include not revealing the name, home address or school of any young person concerned in the proceedings, or particulars – including photographs - which may make identifying them likely.

They will remain anonymous throughout proceedings but these restrictions can be challenged – usually by the media – after proceedings have ended.

Process of youth court

The Youth Court is a type of magistrates' court which deals with young people. Cases in the Youth Court are either dealt with by three magistrates or a single district judge, sitting alone.

This type of court differs from adult criminal proceedings in a number of ways, for example the proceedings are designed to be less formal, the public are not permitted to enter the court and defendants are addressed by their first name. If the victim(s) wishes to observe the proceedings they are obliged to make a request to the court. 

Youth courts deal with offences including theft and burglary, anti-social behaviour and drugs offences. More serious offences are usually transferred to Crown Court but can be dealt with in Youth court

How young offenders are dealt with in court

Young offenders are dealt with differently in the courts compared to adults with defendants referred to by their first names. If they are 16 or under, their parents, guardians or carers must attend court. In more serious cases that come to Crown Court, prosecuting and defending counsel as well as the judge, may take off their wigs and robes during proceedings to put the defendants at ease.

Special measures for youth witnesses

Special measures were introduced through the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (YJCEA) 1999 and include a range of measures to support victims and witnesses (other than the accused) to give their best evidence and help reduce some of the anxiety of attending court.

Child witnesses under the age of 18 are automatically eligible to apply for special measures by virtue of section 16 of the YJCEA 1999 and the court just has to satisfy itself that the special measure is likely to maximise the quality of the witness’s evidence before granting an application.

The special measures potentially available include examination of the witness through an intermediary at the police interview and at court; giving evidence “in private” by clearing the courtroom of members of the public; removal of wigs and gowns by judges and lawyers; giving evidence in court from behind a screen; the use of video recorded evidence in chief; giving evidence via live video link from a separate room; the use of pre-trial video recorded cross-examination; and, the provision of aids to communication by means of an interpreter, computer or other device.

Young Witness Initiative

Another important step for better supporting children in the criminal justice system was takenin 2018, when a judicially-led project called the 'Young Witness Initiative' culminated in a protocol being signed between the CPS, police and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services to expedite cases in the courts involving a witness who is under the age of 10.

The aim is to fast-track these cases to trial, with the police to charge as soon as possible, the CPS to provide charging advice within 7 days for bail cases, the police to provide a full file within 3 weeks of the initial hearing in the magistrates' court and a provisional trial date to be set no more than 8 weeks from date of plea.

Further reading

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