Do specialist courts for youth, domestic violence cases and mental health work?

Specialist courts have sprung up across the country to deal with domestic violence cases, young offenders, substance misusers and people with mental health issues. But what evidence is there that they actually work? Anabel Unity Sale reports


When were they set up?

Under the Criminal Court Act 1991 the juvenile court became the youth court. This is a specialised form of magistrates’ court where all cases against defendants aged 10-17 are heard, unless it is a homicide or rape case or the offence is so serious that the sentencing powers of the youth court are insufficient.

How many are there and where are they?

Cases can be heard in any designated magistrates’ court. There are 360 magistrates’ courts in England and Wales, although not all have youth courts.

How much do they cost to run and who funds them?

Her Majesty’s Courts Service funded all 360 magistrates’ courts to the tune of £517m in 2006-7. Figures for exact youth court spend are unavailable.

What was the rationale behind them?

Youth courts seek to maintain the welfare of the young defendant and proceedings are held in a separate area from the adult court. Their magistrates and staff undergo special training, and procedures are less formal than in adult criminal courts. For example, magistrates deliberately talk directly to defendants rather than through their legal representative. Sentences are meant to address the needs of young offenders. Youth courts can issue sentences in the community lasting two years and impose detention and training orders. Youth courts are not open to the public and only those directly involved in the case will normally be in the room. The press may attend and report the proceedings but will not usually be allowed to publish the defendant’s name.

Do they work?

A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration in the spring noted the culture of youth courts had changed in the previous five years and “young defendants are very much central to the proceedings and the language and style of the court process has changed to ensure this happens”. Areas for improvement included safety and security in many youth courts and risk assessment procedures. It also recommended that pre-court information to prepare young defendants and their parents or carers be available and disseminated.

Bill Kerslake, head of effective sentencing at the Youth Justice Board, agrees the youth court has improved. “The pledge to speed up the system for persistent young offenders has been a result.” He adds that the YJB wants this to continue and for courts to have a more individualised approach to young people, especially in terms of sentencing. “We would like to see more case-holding district judges or magistrates, who see the whole case from beginning to end so there isn’t the opportunity to go into court, have the case heard and for a judge to reinterpret it in another way.”

Thematic Inspection of Youth Courts: Implementation of the Youth Court Good Practice Guide 2001, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration, 2007


How many are there?

Specialist domestic violence courts were established in April 2006 after research evaluating five models in Cardiff, Derby, Leeds, London and Wolverhampton. There are now 64 in England, with plans to expand into Wales.

What was the rationale for setting them up?

The number of prosecutions for domestic violence cases is low as many victims are unwilling to report incidents to the police, let alone go to court. A Crown Prosecution Service evaluation of how magistrates’ courts dealt with domestic violence cases was published in March 2004. It concluded that no single model could be suggested as a template but that a specialist approach to domestic violence, including effective support for victims, delivered benefits.

Do they work?

The evaluation found an increase in the number of guilty pleas and convictions more domestic violence offences reported to the police that resulted in prosecutions enhanced evidence-gathering to allow prosecutions to continue if the victim retracts their statement and a reduction in the number of cases lost before trial.

Beryl Foster, operations director of Standing Together Against Domestic Violence in Hammersmith which supports people attending West London Magistrates’ Court says: “Bringing together all the expertise in one place and training the professionals involved in how to handle domestic violence cases, and the difficulty of prosecuting them, really helps the victim.”

The courts give the message to perpetrators that domestic violence will be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly by police and magistrates, she adds.

Deborah McIlveen, national services development manager for Women’s Aid Federation of England, says the introduction of the specialist courts has resulted in the recognition of advocacy and support services for victims attending court. She says more evidence is needed to show a successful increase in the safety of victims of domestic violence after they have attended court. “We want to see proper risk management put in place as we don’t yet know if having this court process makes women safer.”

Evaluation of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts/Fast Track Systems, Crown Prosecution Service, 2004



A sole family drug and alcohol court is due to be piloted in January 2008. The court will be based in the Inner London and City Family Proceedings Court, Wells Street, London. This court deals with cases from the London boroughs of Camden, Islington and Westminster.

How much will it cost and who will fund it?

The pilot is being funded by Camden, Islington and Westminster councils, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Her Majesty’s Courts Services. The pilot’s cost over three years is £1.6m, £450,000 of which is coming from the DCSF, and £450,000 is earmarked for research and evaluation. Although HMCS has contributed to the pilot, running costs and further rollout costs will be self-funding.

What is the rationale?

District judge Nicholas Crichton, based at the Inner London and City Family Proceedings Court, proposed the idea for a family drug and alcohol court after visiting similar courts in the US. A feasibility study by Brunel University was undertaken on behalf of the three local authorities in 2005.

The court will see specially trained magistrates and court staff work alongside practitioners and social workers to deal with families with drug and alcohol misuse issues involved in care proceedings. The initiative aims to work with about 60 families – 20 from each local authority – a year in court. During the care proceedings the focus will be on the therapy and recovery of the parent in order to improve their long-term ability to care for their child.

The model is based on a multi-disciplinary team engaging the parent at the earliest stage and working with them for one year, during which they will have treatment targets to achieve. If they meet their goals they will “graduate” from the programme. If not the care proceedings case will return to the normal court system.

Will it work?

Sally Heath, commissioning manager for Camden Council’s children, schools and families department and lead on the pilot, says such an approach is needed. She points out that 60-70% of all care proceedings cases in the pilot’s local authorities involve substance misuse. She says offering these parents suitable assessments, support and care packages will help families to address their problems and avoid further legal intervention. “We want the court to encourage the whole family to stay in treatment and keep on track. If there has been a relapse we want the family to take advantage of the level of support and intervention services offered to them.”


When were they proposed and when could they become a reality?

Mental health courts are already used in the US, Australia and Canada and – if government proposals in its criminal justice strategy go ahead – could also be introduced here. A spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Courts Service says the proposal is being explored and the body is drafting an internal document to identify options and costs.

What is the rationale?

Mental health courts ensure that offenders with mental health needs are assessed and treated in a non-custodial setting.

Could they work?

The idea has been are welcomed by Sean Duggan, director of prisons and criminal justice at the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. He supports diverting people from the criminal justice system into mental health services. Says Duggan: “If a mental health court pools resources from criminal justice, health and social care locally and has proper leadership, management, protocols and assessment, it could be a good start.”

The charity has appointed a researcher to look at this issue over the coming year and review evidence from abroad.

If these courts do go ahead it is critical to involve the third sector, says Mind’s policy director, Sophie Corlett. “If it’s about making the criminal justice system more human then it’s a good idea, but if it’s about sharing with the sector the punitive parts of the criminal justice system we are not interested. If we are already involved with the people seen in a court then it may undermine some of the positive work we are doing.”

Building on Progress: Security, Crime and Justice, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, March 2007

Case Study: Jade Saunders 18-year-old ex-offender

‘Youth courts are too soft on young offenders’

If former young offender Jade Saunders (pictured) had appeared in a crown court – not a youth court – the first time she offended (possession of an offensive weapon and robbery), she says she would not have ended up with two more court hearings, including committal to crown court. “If I’d have gone to a crown court first I wouldn’t have reoffended at all because they are so scary and horrible. Being in a crown court really shook me up.”

Saunders initially went to a youth court in April 2005. Friends who had already been to a youth court told her the judges were “nasty” and initially she was worried. “I’ve been to three youth courts and they aren’t that bad the crown court was harsh and intimidating.”

Saunders does not believe young people should receive different treatment from adults who commit offences and thinks youth courts are too soft. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, you should be treated the same if you commit a crime. When most of the people I know go to youth courts nothing happens to them, they get a second chance or are electronically tagged. Sentences need to be stricter.”


Case Study: Lianne A victim of domestic violence

Testifying behind screen helped to secure conviction

Lianne* first experienced domestic violence from her partner Doug*, who misused drugs, while she was pregnant with their child. He already had a conviction for assault and harassment of a previous partner.

When their baby was three months old, Doug assaulted her. She reported the offence to Hammersmith and Fulham police who referred her to the charity Advocacy and Non Violence Community Education (Advance) for support while she took her case to the West London Specialist Domestic Violence Court, based at West London Magistrates’ Court.

With the help of an advocate from Advance, she visited the domestic violence court beforehand and met the police and Crown Prosecution Service to ask for special measures as she was concerned about testifying against her former partner. It was agreed that screens could be placed in the courtroom to shield her and the advocate attended the hearing with her.

Doug changed his plea to guilty when he knew Lianne was going to give evidence against him. The advocate also liaised with Lianne and other professionals once the case was adjourned for pre-sentence reports. Doug was sentenced to three months in prison.

*Names have been changed

Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale

A young offender says youth courts are too soft. Is she right? E-mail to

This article appeared in the 6 September issue under the headline “The jury’s out”


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