Following the publication of ‘Improving Legal Support for Children and Young People in Conflict with the Law’, Dr Claire Lightowler reflects on the findings of the study.
In an ideal world, rights would be respected, due process would be followed, the implications of decisions would be made clear, and lawyers would not be needed. However, what is overwhelmingly clear in talking to young people and professionals over the past few months, is that not having access to good quality legal support is having a major and long-term impact on the lives of children and young people in conflict with the law.
Children and young people are not always receiving the continuing care, after-care, housing support and benefits they are entitled to. Children in conflict with the law are sometimes excluded from school formally, informally, on a short-term basis which is never reinstated, or are regularly taken out of lessons for police interviews or to attend meetings. Police records are sometimes shared with teachers without the knowledge or consent of children. Children are accepting “offence grounds” at a Children’s Hearing with no understanding that this may lead to a criminal record. Children are agreeing to the termination of Compulsory Supervision Orders without understanding that this means they will no longer fall under the responsibility of the Children’s Hearing system. Children don’t always know they have a right to remain silent when interviewed by the police, and do not always have legal advice before or during their contact with the police. Children and young people who experience the courts have very little understanding of what is going on, sometimes not meeting their lawyer beforehand, and often feel distressed and confused when the outcome of court is very different from what they have been told to expect. Children and young people in residential childcare, secure care, young offender’s institutions and prisons sometimes do not know their rights or feel able to challenge decisions. The range and importance of these unmet legal needs highlights that children and young people need lawyers, but they need more than this.
Children and young people need lawyers that are compassionate, treat them with dignity and respect, and tell them uncomfortable truths when its needed. They need to be “real people” not to turn up in suits as a professional persona, but someone who cares and can build trust. This might mean meeting children and young people for chips and cheese to get to know each other first before having a meeting about legal issues. It means turning up as yourself, perhaps wearing your ‘snazzy socks”, eye-catching earrings, or a t-shirt of your favourite band, giving something of yourself for children and young people to relate to. All this takes time, and the limitations of legal aid funding make it difficult financially for even the most skilled lawyer to provide what children and young people need.
There are also fundamental issues around accessing legal help. Children and young people, and those who support them, do not usually know that a lawyer may be able to help them address these issues, or even more fundamentally, realise that it is possible to challenge decisions which affect them. Even if a child or young person identifies that a lawyer may be able to help, they may be fearful of the consequences of challenging decisions or complaining about rights not being upheld. It is therefore critical that legal services are available where children and young people are, that they connect closely with professionals who support children and young people, and that a model of legal support is developed which is more pro-active than waiting for the identification of a legal need. Therefore, children and young people do not even just need good lawyers, they need a different type of embedded legal service which provides practical and emotional supports.
If we are to achieve the fundamental system change required by The Promise and ensure that rights are always respected, then lawyers and legal services for children and young people need to change too.
At Clan Childlaw we’re currently considering what we can do to better meet these needs and are keen to hear your ideas about what we might do together. Please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss this work.
Dr Claire Lightowler was the Director of the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) from 2013-2021. During this time she published a major report, Rights Respecting? Scotland’s approach to children in conflict with the law, which explored whether Scotland was complying with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and what it would look like if children’s rights formed the basis of Scotland’s approach to children who are in conflict with the law. Claire called for urgent action and a commitment to change across Scotland when she delivered the 2022 Kilbrandon lecture.