9 July 2024

Gradually or suddenly? Changing attitudes to young adults in the magistrates’ courts

Young adults

Fionnuala Ratcliffe, Research and Policy Lead at Transform Justice, shares some insights from their recent report on how young adult maturity is considered in the magistrates’ court.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

This Ernest Hemingway quote has been on my mind this week in relation to achieving behaviour change in the magistrates’ courts.

The Barrow Cadbury Trust has long been advocating for a distinct approach to young adults in the criminal justice system. Their work has led to some significant changes in policies in the magistrates’ courts. The sentencing guidelines set out how ‘age and/or lack of maturity’ can affect a person’s responsibility for the offence. Prosecutors are guided to consider maturity in their charging decisions, as is the probation service in its pre-sentence reports.

What difference have these maturity policies and guidelines made in court? That’s where Transform Justice’s CourtWatch London programme came in. We recruited and trained volunteer members of the public (courtwatchers) to observe local magistrates’ courts hearings and write down what they saw.
82 courtwatchers reported on over 1,100 hearings between them with just under 200 involving young adult defendants. One area we asked them to focus on was maturity. What was said about young adults’ maturity? What impact did it have on the court’s decision making?

How is maturity discussed and considered in the magistrates’ court?

Courtwatchers reported that maturity is not even mentioned most of the time, let alone considered. In two thirds of young adult hearings, maturity was not discussed in open court, even though courtwatchers often felt it was relevant: “I found it puzzling that the defendant’s age wasn’t used in the defence strategy. He was clearly young and quite scared in the dock.” Where it was raised, it was usually briefly and generically, as part of a long list of factors. One courtwatcher described the mentioning of maturity as a “tick box” exercise.

There were some examples of court professionals raising maturity in a considered way. In one case, a young Romanian man had been charged with stealing over £1,000 of alcohol from a supermarket. The prosecutor made a detailed case for taking the young adult’s developing maturity into account: “He used a report on the precarious position of young adults in society, especially emphasising the ineffectiveness of viewing them as adults as soon as they turn 18. Using the research, he emphasised the growth still needed and urged leniency.”

In a very small number of cases (not the one above, unfortunately), maturity arguments prompted the court to reduce sentence length, or at least adjourn for further information. But usually comments on maturity were dismissed by court decision makers or deprioritised over other factors.

Why isn’t maturity featuring in magistrates’ court decision-making?

What to make of this absence of maturity from court discussions? We brought the findings to a group of stakeholders at a roundtable on the 4th of June. Everyone was supportive of young adults being treated differently by the courts, but the group felt there were several barriers to this happening in practice.

Training could be improved so that everyone – magistrates, district judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers – understands maturity and why it matters. Magistrates currently have no mandatory training on maturity, so this should be incorporated into their core training. CPS training and guidance does cover maturity but, as our report shows, prosecutors aren’t doing much better than magistrates.

Maturity is also difficult to define and there is no tried and tested assessment tool. A dedicated probation officer with enough time could do a good job of outlining how the young adult’s maturity was a factor in the offence and the implications for sentencing. But probation services are under-resourced and so this rarely happens.

Roundtable attendees also felt maturity could be seen as vague, compared to other factors such as mental health and drugs where the available interventions are clearer. Courtwatchers picked up on this too: “I did not feel magistrates felt convinced about argument on defendant maturity. They took more interest in the doctor’s report on depression and the defendant being his mother’s carer.”

Mentioning maturity could also have a backfire effect – if a judge hears a young man is immature and therefore more susceptible to negative influences through peer pressure, a judge may be more likely to see him as ‘risky’.

Suddenly not gradually? Towards a young adult court

Better assessment, training and staffing could all help magistrates’ courts take a more considered approach to young adult hearings and maturity. Courtwatchers did witness some good practice from the courts, and there is scope to build on this progress.

But changing the mindsets of every professional and magistrate in the adult court system is a long and gradual slog. Can we improve how young adults are treated via a different route?

A more radical option is to grow the remit of the youth court, where the mindsets around maturity have already shifted. The youth court has ‘child first’ principles where courts are told to ‘prioritise the best interests of the child’ and focus on building a ‘pro social identity’. Magistrates, prosecutors and lawyers all have specialist youth court training meaning they have a much better understanding of low maturity and its consequences.

In the foreword for our report, Rob Allen (former T2A Alliance Chair) advocates for raising the age of people dealt with in the youth court beyond the age of 17. A small step towards this could be to hold young adult hearings one afternoon after the youth court sits in the morning. Young adults would then benefit from the expertise and training of youth court magistrates, aided by youth specialist prosecutors and defence lawyers, whose workload has reduced over the years since (thankfully) fewer children are brought to court.

A pilot young adult court would introduce some complexities around court listings, so it would need to be trialled in one area where the court service is willing to give it a go.

This may strike some as quite a radically different approach, but we’ve tried gradual – perhaps it’s time for something else.