PROMINENT youth justice practitioners have slated a Home Office White paper aiming to tackle youth crime as “scurrilous”, “inappropriate” and unlikely to work.
The Home Office last week published its White Paper, “No More Excuses”, which intends to halve the time it takes for young offenders to move from arrest to sentencing.
But the report has angered practitioners who claim it unfairly singles out lawyers for criticism. It:
accuses lawyers of seeking unnecessary adjournments or advising clients to plead guilty late so as to make more money;
proposes introducing block contracts for youth court lawyers;
proposes the setting up of new youth panels for offenders pleading guilty on a first appearance but not allowing legal representation for this stage and;
proposes that lay magistrates assess the performance of lawyers and give “feedback” to the Legal Aid Board (LAB).
Criminal Law Solicitors Association chairman Steve Wedd predicted a take-up of zero for youth court block contracts: “If they are anything like the duty solicitor block contracts to which nobody has so far signed up, solicitors will be universally negative to them.”
London Criminal Court Solicitors Association vice-president Sue Green said singling out lawyers for blame was “scurrilous because the suggestion is that lawyers are encouraging delay to line their pockets”.
Green claimed lay magistrates spent longer on cases than stipendiary magistrates as they needed more explanations, and that delay was also caused by police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and Government cutbacks which had caused youth courts to be over-stretched.
She added that magistrates reporting to the LAB on lawyers' performances in court was a “very worrying move” which would cause a “terrible conflict of interest” for magistrates whose task is to judge defendants and not lawyers.
Wedd added that withdrawing legal representation during the youth panel stage was like “saying those under the age of 18 years have no legal rights.”
Youth courts practitioner Margot Coleman blasted the move claiming it would breach Article 6(3) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees legal assistance for those charged with criminal offences.