Court procedures

The youth offending service aims to prevent children and young people from offending and ensures that appropriate and effective action is taken to help prevent re-offending. This section provides information for children and young people who have not yet been sentenced by a court.

There are two main ways that a young person can be brought to court after being alleged to have committed an offence. These are after:

  • being held in police cells and taken to court on the next available day
  • being released by the police and bailed to appear in court on a certain day - however, if a young person does not attend court when they have been bailed to do so, it is also an offence with which they can be charged

The court system

There are three levels of criminal courts in England and Wales. These are:

  • Crown court
  • Magistrates’ court
  • Youth court

A young person will usually be seen by the youth court, unless they have to go to court on a day which is not a youth court day. In these cases, the young person will be seen in the magistrates’ court for adults where it will be decided whether the case needs to be sent to the youth court on another day or whether it will stay in the magistrates’ court.

If the young person is jointly charged with an adult, the magistrates will have to decide if the two defendants should be kept together or if the adult should be dealt with in the magistrates’ court and the young person in the youth court.

If the offence that the young person has been charged with is serious enough or if the adult they are charged with chooses to be dealt with in the Crown Court, the magistrates can send the case there. In the case of serious crimes, this is called a committal.

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Solicitors

The first thing a young person should do when they are notified that they will have to go to court, is to get themselves a solicitor. As most young people cannot afford to pay for a solicitor, they should be able to get legal aid which will pay for these fees. If, by the time they get to court, a young person still does not have a solicitor, they should ask at the court for the duty solicitor who will advise them.

Parents

The young person should attend with at least one of their parents or another adult, preferably a relative. The magistrates will expect a parent to be in attendance and if an adult does not accompany the young person, the court may put the case off to a later date and send a summons for a parent to attend on the next occasion. If the parent does not attend on the summons date, then the court can issue a warrant for their arrest.

Punctuality at court

When a young person arrives at court, they should find the usher who is organising the court schedule for that day and inform them that they have arrived. Young people should make sure they arrive in good time for their appearance. If a young person is late, or fails to attend, it is treated seriously and will usually result in a warrant for his or her arrest.

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Key roles at court

The following all have specific functions at court:

Usher

The usher is the person who keeps a note of which defendants are present and which solicitor is representing them. They also decide the order in which people will be seen, depending on the availability of solicitors.

Clerk

The clerk is a legally qualified person whose job it is to guide the magistrates in matters of the law. Magistrates will expect the clerk to explain any points of law to them and to help with drawing up reasons for the decisions they make about young people.

Prosecutor

The prosecutor is a solicitor who represents the Crown Prosecution Service. They will usually speak first about the young person and tell the magistrates about the alleged offence. An offence remains an alleged offence and the person remains innocent in the eyes of the law, until a person pleads guilty or is found guilty at a trial.

The prosecutor will read the police and witness statements when they tell the magistrates about the offence. They will also let the magistrates know if there were any previous convictions if and when a young person has been found to be guilty.

Defence

The defence is the solicitor who acts for the young person accused of the crime. They will speak to the young person before going into court so they are aware of the circumstances of the allegation. It is important that solicitors know everything about the incidents so they can respond to any issues raised in court.

Youth offending team

The youth offending team will have a representative in the youth court to give the magistrates any information they have about the young person. The team officer will inform the court about the young person's compliance with previous sentences and any problems or risks involved with sentencing.

The officer will also ensure the young person is aware of the requirements of bail conditions and orders, make arrangements for assessment reports to be written and in some circumstances produce 'stand down' reports on the day of court. They will record court processes and outcomes so that a young person's progress through the court system is monitored.

Magistrates

Usually the magistrates, also known as the bench, will be people from the local community who have been asked to serve as magistrates and to help with the course of justice. They are not lawyers, but have been trained on how to be magistrates by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

They have specific rules they have to abide by and are guided through the process of dealing with offenders by a justice's manual and the court clerk. There will usually be three magistrates, but there can be occasions when there are only two. If only one magistrate is sitting in the court, this usually means they are a district judge and are thus legally qualified to sit on their own through the proceedings.

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Pleading guilty to an offence

If a young person pleads guilty to an offence, the court has various options depending on whether or not the young person has been convicted before.

No previous convictions

If it is the first time that a young person has appeared in court and they plead guilty, the court only has the four following options open to it:

  • absolute discharge
  • hospital order
  • referral order
  • custody

If the court decides to give a referral order, the sentence will be made that day.

If the magistrates think the offence is serious enough to warrant a period of custody in prison, they will delay the case so the youth offending team can prepare a report about the young person and the magistrates can then decide what sentence to give.

Previous convictions

If a young person who pleads guilty has previous convictions, they are not subject to the rules above. This means the court has all of the sentencing options open to them. The severity of the sentence decided on by the magistrates will depend on how serious the offence is.

If the magistrates feel they can deal with the matter on the same day, they have a number of options, including a conditional discharge, a fine or an attendance centre order. If they feel that a reparation order or an action plan order is more appropriate, they can ask the youth offending team officer attending the court to provide a 'stand down' report. The officer will then interview the young person at court and prepare a report on them to allow the magistrates to decide on a sentence.

If the magistrates require further information, they will have to put the matter off for two or three weeks to allow time for a full pre-sentence report to be prepared. This will be done by the youth offending team and will require the young person and parent(s) or guardian to attend a number of interviews so the report can be prepared in time for the next court session.

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Pleading not guilty to an offence

If a young person pleads not guilty to an offence, the case will be adjourned for a trial and a date for it will be set. The defence solicitor will then send a letter to the young person and their parents telling them when they have to come back to court.

On the day of the trial, the defence witnesses will be kept separate from the prosecution witnesses and the witnesses who have already given evidence in court will not be allowed to talk to those who have not yet done so. This is to prevent witnesses being told what is being asked in court because this could prejudice their evidence.

Everyone who gives evidence at a trial will be asked to promise that they will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in a manner which their faith allows. People of a particular faith can affirm that they are telling the truth on sacred religious texts such as the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. People of no religious faith will be asked to affirm that they will tell the truth.

The prosecution will start the trial by giving the magistrates the police report of the offence. They will question each of their witnesses in turn, and then the defence will ask the witness their questions. Once this is done, the magistrates may also have questions to ask. Once the prosecution’s case has been stated, the defence will start their case by calling their list of witnesses. The same process as above will be carried out again, with the defence questioning the witnesses first.

When this whole process has been completed, the magistrates leave the court to discuss the evidence they have heard and to decide whether the young person is guilty or not. If the young person is found to be guilty, the process outlined in the ‘Pleading guilty to an offence’ section above will be followed. Young people who are found guilty are not subject to the rules on referral orders. For more information, please refer to the ‘Previous convictions’ section above.

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Adjournments

There are several reasons why the courts may adjourn to another date to hear the case. If the young person is not dealt with at the first hearing the court must decide whether to place the young person on unconditional or conditional bail, or to deny bail and remand the young person into local authority accommodation provided by the social care service, or to remand them in custody.

Both prosecution and defence solicitors will make representations about what they think is the most suitable way to ensure the young person attends court at the next hearing.

Further information