Key findings

  • The principles of procedural justice – understanding, voice, respect and trust – should guide youth court layouts and procedures.
  • Using evidence-based communication techniques – active listening, demonstrating empathy and concern, open questions – is more likely to help children engage with court processes.
  • Parents and carers should sit close to the child in court, and be actively engaged with the hearing by sentencers and legal representatives.
  • Neurodivergent children are common in the youth justice system. There are simple steps that can be taken to help them cope with the court process.
  • Youth courts should be ‘inhabited’ by a diverse group of actors who feel both an individual and a collective responsibility to prevent and address disparities and are willing to work collaboratively on establishing a fair and inclusive court culture and practice.


A youth court is a special type of magistrates’ court for children aged between 10 and 17 years, reflecting both the age of criminal consent (10 years old) and the legal transition to adulthood (18 years old). For those children in this age group who come into conflict with the law, youth justice services (YJSs) prepare pre-sentence reports and bail proposal reports to guide the youth court.

The youth court deals with relatively less serious offences, such as theft or drug possession. The most serious offences, including murder or rape, will begin in the youth court but will be moved to the Crown Court for jury trial. Where the child has an adult co-defendant who is transferred to the Crown Court, the child’s case will also be transferred.

Cases coming to the youth court have fallen dramatically in recent years. This decline has largely been the result of the increased diversion from the criminal justice system. Key statistics are as follows:

  • there were around 17,200 children proceeded against at court in the year ending March 2022, a fall of eight per cent from the previous year and a fall of 78 per cent compared to ten years ago
  • almost two thirds (62 per cent) of these proceedings were for indictable offences, 26 per cent were for summary non-motoring offences and the remaining 13 per cent were for summary motoring offences
  • of those children sentenced in the year ending March 2020 with a completed AssetPlus assessment, there were concerns in relation to speech, language and communication in 71 per cent of cases.

Summary of the evidence

Factors affecting children’s experiences

The research literature has highlighted the following factors that can affect the experiences of children at court:

  • how well prepared they are
  • how the courtroom is configured or arranged
  • the extent to which they understand the language being used
  • the extent to which they can meaningfully participate
  • how well they are supported.

Adherence to procedural justice

International and domestic legal guidelines stress the importance of adapting court processes for children, so they and their parents and carers understand what is happening at court. Research indicates procedural justice can assist such engagement and understanding. There are four components to procedural justice:

  • understanding the process that is taking place
  • having a voice in the process
  • feeling that you have been treated with respect
  • trust in the neutrality of the process.

A renewed focus on respectful communication and the use of child-friendly language have been highlighted as beneficial in terms of young people’s perceptions of court. A recent evidence review has also noted five critical success factors for effectively engaging with child defendants:

  1. court setting: the researchers found that hearings in chambers allowed participants to sit closely, reduced formality, yet retained the sense of seriousness the court brings
  2. conversation techniques and rapport: sentencers should not talk too much themselves; and questions to the child and parents and carers should be short, direct, and quite open-ended
  3. hearing children’s views: the child should be able to tell their own story, with minimal questioning and interruption – this freedom encourages self-reflection and learning
  4. genuine interest: sentencers who actively listen, ask appropriate questions and demonstrate warmth and empathy gain better engagement from children
  5. hearing parents’ views: parents need to be seated near to the child and should be involved in confirming the child’s circumstances and the child’s understanding of events.

A range of other considerations have been highlighted, including the use of pictorial leaflets and videos to aid understanding, and the need to minimise noise disruption when in court.

The video below, produced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, provides a helpful overview of some of the key differences in working in the youth courts compared to the adult courts, and the importance of thinking carefully about communication and engagement, and how to encourage participation.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

Assisting neurodivergent children

Many children in conflict with the law have speech, communication and language problems associated with conditions such as autism, dyslexia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Neurodivergent children may have more acute difficulties understanding and following the court processes. Such needs may not have been disclosed to the court, the defence, or the YJS. Experts recommend the following to assist neurodivergent children in criminal justice settings:

  • only ask one question at a time
  • use visual aids where possible
  • avoid use of ‘legalese’, jargon, or acronyms
  • check understanding – don’t take a nod or muttered ‘yes’ to mean understanding
  • slow the pace at which you speak
  • give a longer time for children to respond
  • repeat information if necessary, possibly rephrasing if helpful
  • don’t assume the child can read.

The dangers of shortcuts and biases

A small-scale study of PSRs in the youth courts found sentencers used the reports to rationalise prior decisions and pre-existing beliefs. Magistrates’ own life experience and ‘common sense’ were prioritised over the expert advice of the PSR author. Research on remand-decision making and equality in youth courts reported that some YJSs appeared to be very engaged and proactive in aiming to prevent bias and disproportionality in their work. However, this research found that there are various mechanisms/features that make the remand decision-making process in youth courts particularly prone to producing unwarranted disparities, including the time constraints, limited information, and shortages of readily available services, alongside the human nature of courtroom workgroup decision-making. It was concluded that it is important that youth courts are ‘inhabited’ by a diverse group of actors who feel both an individual and a collective responsibility to prevent and address disparities and are willing to work collaboratively on establishing a fair and inclusive court culture and practice.

Inspection data

Our 2021 YOT Annual Report noted that feedback from the youth courts about YJSs was mainly positive, and indicated that YJS staff provide a good advocacy service for children and families. We noted good practice at Hounslow YJS where staff were particularly proactive and would speak to magistrates before the child appeared to explain if the child had any learning needs or behavioural traits that should be taken into consideration by the court.

Key references

Brown, A. (2023). An Introduction to Youth Court, Info Sheet 107. Glasgow: Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice.

Centre for Justice Innovation (2020). Young people’s voices on youth court. London: Centre for Justice Innovation.

Hunter, G., Ely, C., Robin-D’Cruz, C. and Whitehead, S. (2020). Time to get it Right: Enhancing problem-solving practice in the youth court. London: Centre for Justice Innovation and Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

Kirkby, A. (2021) Neurodiversity: Embracing inclusivity in youth justice settings. London: Youth Justice Board.

van den Brink, Y. (2022). ‘Different but equal? Exploring potential catalysts of disparity in remand decision-making in the youth court’, Social & Legal Studies, 31(3), pp. 477-500.

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Last updated: 27 October 2023