Young People's Perceptions and Experiences of the Lawyer-Client Relationship

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the last two decades, within the youth justice system, adolescents have generally been viewed as sufficiently mature and autonomous to make independent decisions, be held accountable for their actions, and participate in adversarial legal proceedings against them. The increased focus on youth autonomy and accountability reflected in the Young Offenders Act (YOA) constituted a significant departure from the paternalistic "welfare" model of juvenile justice when it replaced the Juvenile Delinquents Act over 20 years ago. In recognition of this, policy makers included provisions for protecting young people's due process rights under youth justice legislation (Bala 2003; Carrington and Schulenberg 2004), and the right to counsel received particular attention. As under the YOA, under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, young people must be reminded of their representational rights at several stages of the proceedings in which they are involved (e.g., s. 25(1-3), s. 146(2)(b-c)). The importance of legal representation for youth extends beyond informing young people of their right to counsel, however. Bala (2003) indicates that "the Youth Criminal Justice Act has provisions which are intended to ensure that youths can have access to legal assistance at every stage of the youth justice process" (318; emphasis added), including financial support to pay for legal services when a youth cannot afford to pay for a lawyer himself or herself, though he cautions that, in practice, many young people remain "inadequately represented or not represented at all" (319). Despite the acknowledgement of the importance of legal counsel for young people, there has been little empirical examination of the lawyer-client relationship when the client is an adolescent. In particular, little is known about the factors affecting youths' appraisals of their lawyers and lawyer-client experiences.

Clients' perceptions of lawyers, who represent and embody the law, may establish lasting foundations for their overarching legal attitudes and opinions (Curran 1977), beliefs about the justice system and the law (Nelson 1988), and feelings of attachment and commitment to the society in which laws are upheld (Curran 1977). If clients feel unfairly treated by a professional group who represent both the clients themselves and the institutionalized rules of a larger system, then they may cease to adhere to those rules (Herrin 1997). In the medical realm, it has been substantiated that satisfied patients are more likely to adhere to treatment programs and comply with rehabilitation regimens prescribed by doctors (Sanazaro 1985; Press 1994; DiPalo 1997); by analogy, individuals' dissatisfaction with lawyers may induce their disrespect or disregard for legal rules and regulations (Tyler 2000). Black (1983) suggests that negative experiences with lawyers can hamper dispute resolution and promote the use of informal methods of conflict resolution. The "use of nonlegal methods, such as violence, may injure the individuals involved, and eventually the larger society, by weakening the capacity of law as social control" (Herrin 1997: 2).

The procedural justice framework (Tyler 1987a, 2000) is a useful lens through which to examine the issue of young people's experiences with legal representation. There is a body of research suggesting that people's judgements about the legitimacy of rules and authority figures are based largely on their assessments of fairness in decision-making procedures (Tyler 1987a). Since "the willingness to defer to social rules flows from judgments that authorities are legitimate and ought to be obeyed" (Tyler 2000: 120), the use of fair decision-making procedures may facilitate the development, maintenance, and enhancement of voluntary adherence to social rules and regulations (Sparks, Bottoms, and Hay 1996; Tyler 1990). Indeed, in a study of perceived legitimacy and justice in legal proceedings, Tyler (1987a) found that citizens' evaluations of fairness in their interactions with the police and courts were highly predictive of their perceptions of legal authorities' legitimacy and their subsequent law-abiding behaviour. …