A hybrid Crown and youth court would be the best way to ensure young defendants charged with serious offences receive a fair trial, delegates at the inaugural youth justice summit heard.
At the conference, organised by the Youth Justice Legal Centre, practitioners disagreed on the most appropriate venue for trials involving defendants aged under 18 charged with the most serious offences.
In 1993, two 10-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were tried and convicted in an adult court for murdering two year old James Bulger. Edward Fitzgerald QC, who represented Venables following the conviction, told the conference that the pair’s fate was determined in the style of the ‘Roman amphitheatre’.
Following the infamous trial, practice directions were introduced to make adjustments to the procedure when children are tried in the Crown court. But 18 years on, the conference considered if children charged with serious offences get fair trials.
While some practitioners were concerned that the Crown court is an inappropriate forum for youth trials and that there should be an age below which defendants should not be tried in the Crown court, others were concerned about denying young people the right to trial by jury.
Anya Lewis, a criminal barrister at London’s Garden Court Chambers, gave delegates two examples of trials she had conducted for juvenile defendants to demonstrate the contrasting merits of each venue.
The first was the trial of a 16-year-old boy charged with raping his 13-year-old girlfriend on the first occasion that the pair had had sex during their nine-month relationship.
The trial had taken place at the Central Criminal Court, and while the judge had tried to make the procedure as accessible as possible, the complainant had been terrified and the defendant had become so distressed by the proceedings that he almost walked out. At the end of it, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Lewis contrasted that with the a trial in the more informal environment of the youth court, where the defendant sat with his parents, only parties connected with the case were admitted and the lawyers were not robed. Despite questionable evidence, Lewis said the district judge, convicted him.
Based on her experience, she told the conference that the best place to get a ‘fair hearing’ and a ‘just verdict’ is at the Crown court before a judge and jury.
One unfairness at the youth court, she said, is that bad character applications are dealt with by the tribunal that goes on to decide the verdict, after they have seen all the prejudicial material, that a jury would not have known about.
But Sue Green, a district judge at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court, with more than 30 years’ experience and who is ticketed to hear sex cases, said: ‘The youth court is absolutely the best place for dealing with young people.’
But, she added the proviso, that it does require ‘specially trained’ people in all roles. Two often, she said, she sees poor advocates who are unfamiliar with the youth court procedures or sentencing powers.
Shauneen Lambe, founder of the charity Just for Kids Law, said: ‘If the right to trial by jury is so fundamental, we can’t take it away from children, unless we also consider taking it away from everyone. Children should have all the special protections required, but they shouldn’t lose anything that is available to adults.’
As a solution, Lewis suggested that trails involving young defendants should be conducted in a hybrid court that sits with a judge and jury, but in a less intimidating courtroom than a traditional Crown court.
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