Children in Court: Should There Be Reform?

It was reported earlier this month that Sir James Munby (Family court president) urged radical reform to the application of criminal law  towards children saying “In less serious cases it is legitimate to ask what advantage there invoking a criminal process in preference to a family court process”. So what is the current system in place for sentencing children and what reforms could Sir James be hinting at?

At the moment there are 5 levels of sentencing in a criminal court for a child between 10 and 17 years old:

1)      Discharge - Either Absolutely (No punishment or criminal record) or Conditional (No sentence is imposed unless a further crime is committed within a time period set by the Court)
2)      Fine – Amount based on nature/severity of offence and offender’s ability to pay however this burden is placed upon parents to pay on behalf of the offender under 16 years old.
3)      Referral Order – Offender agrees a contract of certain commitments for up to year aimed at making up for harm caused and addressing behaviour issues.
4)      Youth Rehabilitation Order – Includes at least 1 of a number of requirements an offender must comply with over a 3 year period e.g. Keeping to a curfew, unpaid work or mental health therapy and treatments.
5)      Detention and Training Orders – Aim to provide training/education/rehabilitation in order to avoid reoffending. These can be spent in secure children’s homes, secure training centres or Young Offender Institutions. Detention and Training Orders can last between 4 months and 2 years. Longer term detentions can be given for offences carrying up to 14 years imprisonment or more or are listed in section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 2000 (Serious assaults/death by dangerous driving or death from driving under the influence). 

Sir James Mumby in his lecture, made references to some reforms he would like to see. He wants a “fundamental rebalancing” on the role of the Family Court (dealing at the moment primarily in custody/abuse/neglect cases) so that they can take over from the Youth Court in working to better and redeem disturbed teenagers rather than just locking them up and also stop the responsibility of these children from being spread across too many agencies. He believes the various systems of Justice for under 18’s is “far too complex, far too little co-ordinated and serving far too many different and conflicting objectives to be effective”. Finally, he wants to reform the idea of sending children to institutions saying “What benefit is society getting by sending children to enormously expensive institutions where the outcome is so unhappy” especially after it has been discovered many of these centres are unsafe according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

It will be interesting to see if Sir James can get the government to look into reform in his last few months as president of the Family Court but he himself does not appear optimistic of the chances at this current point in time.
By Alex Small