Ross Deuchar

Appearing in court on a criminal charge can be a daunting experience for young people, and particularly for first time offenders. Many feel anxious and nervous prior to, and while attending, court and they often require support to adequately understand court proceedings. Research studies around the world have also found that court-processed adolescents are significantly more likely to reoffend within a relatively short period of time compared to those who become diverted from formal system processing.

Taking account of this evidence, the Scottish Government introduced in 2011 the Whole System Approach (WSA) to preventing and reducing offending by young people. The approach seeks to maximise opportunities for young people to be diverted away from the adult justice system through Early and Effective Intervention or diversion from prosecution. Where this is not possible, support is also be provided to those young people who are prosecuted through the adult system and are required to attend court.

As part of the WSA, Renfrewshire Council introduced a new court support service for the first time in 2012. The service offers support to 16-17 year olds appearing at Sheriff/Justice of the Peace court who are normally resident in the Renfrewshire area. It aims to ensure that every young person arrested and held in police custody is offered support prior to, during, and after them appearing in court. At the University of the West of Scotland, we have recently completed a full evaluation of the service. We conducted interviews with young people, stakeholders including Defence Agents who represented young people at court plus several of the staff delivering the court support service within the local authority. We also observed a sample of visits by Whole System Team (WST) workers to custody cells in the Sheriff Court, where they met with young people prior to their court hearings.

Our insights indicated that the WST team ensured that young people with chaotic lives who were cited for court actually remembered to attend at the right time, for example by sending them text reminders. Where an individual young person was at particular risk of failing to appear at court, WST staff would pick them up from their registered address and take them to court. Stakeholders unanimously agreed that the attendance rate of under 18s in court had improved significantly as a result, thus contributing to better sentencing outcomes.

The team also provided judges with comprehensive bail reports that clearly described the support that would be put in place to help young people comply with bail and reduce their offending behaviour. Defence Agents felt that the work done by the WST ensured that judges had sufficient information to make the right decisions for young people. As two of the Agents we spoke to put it, ‘Quite often (the young people) don’t give you information …. without the Whole System Team, I fear we may not have had the full picture’. Further, the service supported the young people during their bail periods by offering personal mentoring and guidance and referring them to wider agencies to provide them with help in the form of drug rehabilitation, anger management and counselling services. During the first 12 months of the service’s operation, only 5 per cent of under-18s appearing in court went on to be remanded in secure care or custody.

Many of the young people we interviewed talked about the trusting relationships they had built with the WST workers. During our observations in custody cells, we could see firsthand that the support workers provided young people with reassurance and personal support. They explained legal terminology to them, made them aware of their rights, highlighted the need to seek legal aid and helped them understand the court process. As a result, young people felt much more at ease as they went into the court and were more able to represent themselves appropriately.

Many of the young people talked about the way in which the team introduced them to wider agencies as part of their bail support that helped them address the issues that stimulated their offending behaviour. They were able to access suitable accommodation, work placements and jobs and for many this resulted in a greater commitment to criminal desistance. Even where uncertainties arose in the young people’s minds about whether or not they had the personal resilience to stay away from crime in the future, the strength of their relationships with support workers provided them with reassurance. One young man represented the views of many when he said, ‘If there was ever any temptations (in the future) then I know that I’ve got John or my other worker just a phone call away’.

Previous research has repeatedly illustrated the criminogenic effects that formal system processing has on young people, and that court exposure can create a negative turning point that inhibits youngsters’ desistance from offending. The success of the Renfrewshire model illustrates why we need more Government funding to support initiatives of this kind – both as a means of supporting our young people to have positive futures and to ensure that communities, families and individuals live their lives safe from crime, disorder, danger and harm.

Professor Ross Deuchar is Assistant Dean in the School of Education and coordinator of the research cluster on Youth Justice and Crime Prevention at the University of the West of Scotland. For further information on the evaluation, please email: