Confidence and Credibility: Magistrates and Youth Offending Teams within the Youth Courts in England and Wales

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The role of Magistrates is to conduct trials, establish guilt or innocence, determine sentences, enforce court orders, make bail decisions, issue warrants and remand people to custody (Newburn, 2007). The role of YOTs is less clear, however, and they have struggled to establish and maintain a clear identity (Canton and Eadie, 2002). Although YOTs remain the sole service responsible for young offenders within England and Wales, there has been a continually moving agenda, from a primary focus upon welfare needs to a growing concern with enforcement (Thomas, 2008). In the past 10 years there has been an increasing focus on performance management and target setting which has resulted in YOTs becoming driven by procedural concerns rather than professional values. As Smith (2007) notes, National Standards (2004) have ensured that welfare issues have become further marginalised with a preoccupation with compliance with court orders. Souhami (2007) writes of the loss of occupational identity within youth justice, citing confusion about the goals and principles of youth justice work and how external influences affect the way YOTs operate. This article argues that, as a result, both the magistrates and their YOTs are mutually reinforcing local court cultures and outcomes which have become harsher and more punitive over time (Muncie, 2009). It concludes by arguing that if magistrates and YOTs can develop trust and confidence whilst remaining independent of each other's interests there is also the potential for better outcomes for some young people, with a reduced likelihood of further offending as a consequence.

The term "better outcome" can be viewed as having two elements: firstly, sentences which the young person as well as the court believes will help prevent them from committing further offending or that the young person considers to be worthwhile (McGrath, 2009) and secondly, outcomes which do not damage the young person (Goldson, 2005, 2006). In essence this means limiting the use of custody, for both sentence and remand, in all but the most serious cases because of the substantial evidence concerning its damaging effects on children and young people (Bateman, 2005; Goldson, 2005; Goldson, 2006; Muncie, 2009).

Frances Done, Chair of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) recently noted that:

We have to help YOTs build as much confidence with local magistrates' benches as possible. The better the relationship between the YOT and the courts the more confident magistrates are in the reports YOTs do and the better the general understanding of the work of the YOT and the way Referral Order panels work, the more likely it is there will be lower custody rates (Youth Justice News July 08).

There is considerable disparity in the use of custodial sentences around the country, for example, the YJB figures for 2007/8 record Liverpool as having custody rates of 11.8% whereas Newcastle, a YOT of similar size, has custody rates of only 2.1%. John Fasselfelt (2009), Deputy Chair of the Magistrates Association, argues that this might not be due to one Bench being more punitive than another; but "a lack of confidence on the part of magistrates in Youth Offending Teams".

Bateman and Stanley (2002) examined differences in sentencing patterns across England and Wales and identified a clear correlation between magistrates' perceptions of the quality of local YOTs and levels of custody. They found that magistrates in areas of high custody rates had less confidence in the local YOT than their counterparts where custody was less frequently used. Their study also revealed lower custody rates in areas with good communication and information exchange within the court.

Roles within the Youth Court

The role of the Magistrate is essentially that of a decision maker who has heard information provided by the other court room professionals. How those decisions are made is a matter of interest. Parker (1989:116) writes of the "professional ideology of the lay magistrates" wherein magistrates believe themselves to be the only impartial members of the court, citing the "deviousness of defence lawyers, defendant centeredness of social workers and over enthusiasm of police evidence" (Parker 1989:171). …