Stop the introduction of online pleas to criminal offences for children.

Stop the introduction of online pleas to criminal offences for children.

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Why this petition matters

Every day in England and Wales, Youth Justice Lawyers represent some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. We use our experience, and expertise, to recognise when a child may have undiagnosed difficulties, or is particularly vulnerable for some other reason, and where they may have been a victim of child criminal exploitation. We ensure that specific policies have been complied with and we defend the rights of children across the country.

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill (the Bill) is currently making its way through the House of Commons. Running to a total of 96 pages, the Bill suggests a number of worrying and fundamental changes to our criminal justice system. The first is the introduction of ‘online pleas’ for criminal offences and the second, the expansion of online convictions. If enacted, these provisions will not just apply to adults, but to children too.

The proposed criteria for a child to be able to ‘opt’ to enter a plea online, is limited to the child being provided with an explanation as to why they are being asked to provide a plea and being provided with a copy of the prosecution material in their case. In addition, a child over the age of 16 years old can also opt to be convicted and sentenced in their absence where they are charged with a non-imprisonable summary only offence.

One intention of the Bill is to streamline our criminal justice system. However, the online plea provision is based on the assumption that a first appearance is purely administrative in nature. It also assumes that a child will know whether or not they have committed a criminal offence. In practice, these assumptions could not be further from the truth.

At a first hearing, Youth Justice Lawyers will often make submissions that charges are incorrect, that they have insufficient disclosure to be able to advise their clients, that charges should not be proceeded with on evidential and/or public interest grounds as well as working with the Youth Offending Service to divert children away from the criminal justice system by way of out of court disposals whenever possible. There is detailed CPS guidance on when not to prosecute children and young people that is often overlooked. Apart from engaging evidential and public interest considerations, there may be separate issues as to whether the child or young person may have innate difficulties that may impact on their ability to effectively participate and understand the proceedings. Under these proposals, these considerations will be side-stepped.

The government is expecting children aged between 10 and 17 years old to take on the role of their lawyers; expecting them to be able to identify whether or not they have a defence to a criminal offence. The explanatory notes to the Bill suggest that children will not be able to enter a plea to the most serious offences without legal advice, however, this is not provided for within the actual legislation itself; the only safeguard being that children cannot plead online to homicide offences or certain offences under the Firearms Act.

If enacted, these proposals will undoubtedly result in worse outcomes for, and the over criminalisation of, children.

Streamlining our criminal justice system should not come at the expense of justice for vulnerable children. We ask that you sign and share this petition to stop the introduction of online pleas, and the expansion of online convictions, for children.

Thank you.

Mel Stooks, Claire Dissington and Sabrina Neves; solicitors in the specialist Youth Team at GT Stewart Solicitors

88 have signed. Let’s get to 100!