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GT Stewart was proud to be one of the sponsors of The Youth Justice Legal Centre Summit 2023, held at Kings College London. The Youth Team turned out in force for the event exploring alternatives to the Criminal Legal System for Children.

The afternoon was divided into four thematic panels, the first addressing Kids, Drugs and Criminality. We were reminded that the efforts children make should be better recognised – when the simple act of attending an appointment can be fraught with difficulties of distance, cost and safety. Decriminalisation models from abroad were shown to be a success and the comic moment of the poster boys of drug users (white middle class politicians) contrasted starkly with the statistic that 86% of strip searches of children are under s23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

This panel concluded with a powerful presentation from Anne-Marie Cockburn, the mother of 15 year old Martha who tragically lost her life after taking MDMA. No one could fail to be moved by her journey of understanding and ultimately compassion for the young man who supplied the drug; her correspondence with him and message that Restorative Justice can be justice was truly inspirational.

The second panel discussed the issue of police in our schools. Safer Schools Officers have crept into secondary schools as the new normal yet shockingly there is no written remit or monitoring of what they actually do. Roxy Legane, director of Kids of Colour discussed her research on this highlighting the blurred lines of power within schools where headteachers could not even confirm what the officers within their schools were supposed to be doing. The struggle to remain in education was eloquently described by Johnathan Akindutire as he explained not only his difficulties with the education system but how the decisions made within it had devastating consequences on the lives of some of his peers.

Non punitive approaches was the theme of the third panel which included Alan Webster, Deputy Director of Youth Justice policy at the MOJ. He was keen to highlight that more funds would be available for solicitors working within the Youth Justice System but was rightly reminded by our Claire Dissington that this is too little too late in an inequitable system where so many solicitors are forced to abandon legally aided criminal defence for the better pay and conditions of the CPS. His comment that the quality of youth court advocacy was so poor due to the fewer numbers of children in the system did not go unheeded either. Phil Bowen from the YJB, also on the panel, said that no one would want their child anywhere near a youth custody institution; so we have less children in custody but we still can’t look after them properly.

The final panel of the day addressed the issues of safeguarding and protection, criminalisation and investigation. This discussion was one of the hardest to hear as each speaker described various examples of how badly children are served by those who should be caring for them. Chris Callendar (Simpson Millar) provided one of the moments of hope when reminding us that it is within our remit to change and the law is on our side.

Thanks to the YJLC for such an informative and thought provoking afternoon. We look forward to the next one!