There is a significant gap between what children and young people want, and need, from their lawyers, and what they usually experience, according to a new study from Clan Childlaw. The study also found that lack of access to legal advice has major and often long-term repercussions for many children and young people in conflict with the law.

Improving Legal Support For Children And Young People In Conflict With The Law: A Scoping Study was commissioned by Clan Childlaw and funded by the Promise Partnership and aimed to understand the unmet legal needs of children who are in conflict with the law in Scotland. The term “children and young people in conflict with the law” is used to refer to those who come into contact with the care or justice systems, either due to a perception or allegation that they are involved in offending, or because they have been found guilty of an offence.

The study found that children and young people often struggle to access legal advice when they need it. Even when they managed to access a lawyer, children and young people found it difficult to open up to “suited and booted” lawyers. Meetings with lawyers were often short and rushed, dictated by legal aid limitations rather than the needs of the child. The study has identified a need for a new approach to legal support for these children and young people, one which is easily accessible, available when it is needed, and which makes time for children to get to know and trust their lawyers “over chips and cheese” before they dive into difficult conversations.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Dedicated legal services, tailored to meet the specific needs of children and young people in conflict with the law, are essential.

  • Children and young people need lawyers to spend time with them, and to be people who they can connect with. There is a significant gap between what children and young people want, and need, from their lawyers, and what they usually experience. This gap is partly due to issues with legal aid, which doesn’t fund the time that children and young people need with their lawyers.

  • To be effective, legal advice and support must be easily accessible and available where children and young people are, for example in secure care or Young Offenders Institutions.

  • A lack of access to legal advice has major and often long-term repercussions for many children and young people in conflict with the law.

  • There were critical moments when not receiving legal advice, support or representation had major consequences for children and young people’s lives. These included:

    • before and during police contact

    • before, during and after court appearances or a Children’s Hearing

    • when considering termination of a Compulsory Supervision Order

    • when in secure care or a Young Offenders Institution (YOI)

    • when navigating issues about disclosure of criminal records

Dr Claire Lightowler, author of the study and former director of the Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice (CYCJ), said:

“This study highlights how significant and long lasting the implications can be for children and young people in conflict with the law when they do not have access to legal services, or when what is available does not meet their needs. There is a significant gap between what these children and young people want and need from a lawyer, and what they are currently experiencing. In order for the rights of these children to be upheld, that gap needs to be closed.”

Alison Reid, Chief Executive and Principal Solicitor at Clan Childlaw, said:

“Clan Childlaw is committed to better understanding the legal needs of children and young people who are in conflict with the law. As Scotland’s law centre for children and young people, we exist to protect and strengthen the rights of all Scotland’s children. This scoping study is a vital first step in understanding what we can do to support this group of children and young people and to keep the Promise.”

Clan Childlaw is grateful to everyone who contributed to this study, in particular the young people who shared their views and experiences in order that we might do better for children and young people in the future.

Read the full study

Improving Legal Support For Children And Young People In Conflict With The Law: A Scoping Study

If you would like to discuss the scoping study findings or the next steps, please contact us at [email protected].