SRA: Mandatory training of youth court solicitors 'comes at a cost'
New guidance to help solicitors a â€˜step in the right direction', says youth justice trainer
Mandatory training for youth court solicitors ‘comes at a cost’, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has said, as it unveiled new voluntary guidance for practitioners dealing with young people.
Developed with Just for Kids Law and the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, the SRA’s online toolkit includes advice on the language solicitors should use and how to improve their understanding of a young person’s needs. But does it go far enough?
In 2014, MPs and peers called on the SRA, Bar Standards Board, and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) to require all legal practitioners representing children to be accredited ‘without delay’ and to undertake mandatory specialist training. The SRA has remained against mandatory training, leaving only the BSB and CILEx to explore how it could be implemented.
‘We do not want to introduce further barriers for solicitors working in this important area,’ said Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training. ‘Mandatory training doesn’t necessarily ensure competence, but it certainly comes at a cost. Our new support package is a good free resource, along with others available for practitioners who want to make sure they can meet the challenges of working in the youth courts.’
The guidance forms part of the regulator’s new continuing competence regime, which replaced continual professional development requirements this week. The regulator claims that over 60 per cent of young people and children in the criminal justice system have significant speech and language and communication needs, which can leave them at significant risk of not being able to understand their solicitor or how the court works.
The regulator has said it is planning to provide more information to help solicitors working in youth courts and is currently conducting a wider review of advocacy in criminal work to identify trends and areas where things could be improved.
Last month, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England released a report which revealed that children often did not understand legal processes or sentencing, nor were they given the opportunity to speak in a court even ‘if a solicitor was not getting it right’.
In a separate move, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law also called for greater access to justice for children. Its Children and Access to Justice report, published last month, found that the right of children to be actively engaged in proceedings presented the greatest challenge for international legal systems.
Kate Aubrey-Johnson, a director of Just for Kids Law’s Youth Justice Legal Centre, said training should be a pre-requisite for any lawyer working with children. ‘The law relating to children in the criminal justice system is complex; there are different rights, protections, laws, and sentences from adults. Many child defendants have communication needs and there are much higher rates of mental illness, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
‘We have always argued that lawyers representing children in criminal proceedings should be specialists and have specific training. Without specialist training and resources the lawyer’s ability to represent a child effectively is inhibited. Just as a parent would expect their child’s teacher to be trained in working with children we believe the same should be true of a child’s lawyer. Training should be a pre-requisite for any lawyer working with children.’
Hakan Pettersson, a youth justice trainer for Leeds Youth Offending Service Court Team, said some training should be mandatory but any form of preparation was ‘better than none’. ‘It can be quite difficult to work your way around how young people are dealt with within the criminal justice system simply by reading or looking at a webinar. Face to face training that puts some meat on the bones to go with the reading and/or research is invaluable. The SRA’s package is a step in the right direction.’
By focusing on the cost of training, the SRA has perhaps given more weight to the needs of solicitors, rather than the protection of consumers, which is one of its functions. Issuing new guidance is a positive step, but by keeping it voluntary, the SRA may have missed an opportunity. Making training mandatory would help support the creation of a body of trusted specialists. And it would have helped increase public confidence, and that of children, in legal services.
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal