Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, formerly the highest family court judge in England, is calling for children who offend to receive social work support or be dealt with by family courts, except in cases where the offence was serious.
Speaking at the bill’s second reading in the House of Lords this week, Butler-Sloss argued that more should be done to identify family problems “at an early stage” rather than treating all children as offenders.
She proposed diverting 10-12 year-olds away from youth courts and instead of referring them to family courts or social services where appropriate.
The crossbench peer suggested cases could be initially assessed by local committee of professionals including social services and chaired by a magistrate or judge, who would decide on the seriousness of offences.
“It may be well known that the family [of the child] is dysfunctional or the committee may consider that there should be an investigation to see whether there are reasons for offending that might be dealt with so as to avoid repetition of offending and without the child receiving a finding of guilt,” Butler-Sloss told peers.
“The committee might decide that informal intervention by social workers might do the trick or that the local authority should issue care proceedings to give the family proceedings court the power to deal with the case,” she said.
She added the procedure would be “an added burden” on social services, local authorities and youth offending teams, but argued: “If it diverted the child from reoffending, it would be extremely cheap at the price.”
Butler-Sloss also proposed giving youth court magistrates the power to require a report to see if a case would require social work intervention or family court rather than criminal proceedings.
During the debate, peers criticised the bill as a “missed opportunity” to reform youth justice.
Previously, the government promised a seperate youth justice bill, but proposed legislation has instead been absorbed into the wide-ranging Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.
Key youth justice proposals in the bill include the creation of a single generic community sentence and a statutory one-year review of juvenile Asbos.
Responding for the government, junior justice minister Lord Hunt said a youth crime action plan would be published in the summer and promised a debate on juvenile sentencing.
The bill now moves to committee stage in the House of Lords on 5 February.