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23 July 2021

Grave crimes: Serious youth criminal offences

6 mins

Generally, children between the ages of ten and 17 (‘youths’) who are charged with a criminal offence have their cases heard in the Youth Court. This is similar to a magistrates’ court but adapted to allow for the participation of those under the age of 18. Youth Courts are more informal than adult courts and consist of either three magistrates or a District Judge. 

What sentences can young offenders receive?

In terms of sentencing, young offenders may receive a fine or a discharge.

Referral Orders

Referral orders which require the youth offender to attend meetings with a ‘youth offender panel’ are available. Referral orders can impose specific requirements such as making reparation for any damage caused as a result of the offence, carrying out unpaid work and taking part in, or refraining from taking part in, specified activities.

Youth rehabilitation orders

Youth rehabilitation orders are available which may require a young offender to take part in supervisions, a curfew, unpaid work, programmes geared towards addressing their offending behaviour or mental health or drug treatment, amongst others

.Detention and training orders

Detention and training orders may be imposed which place a young offender in custody. Note that the Youth Court can only impose a maximum total sentence of a detention and training order of twenty four months following the conviction of the youth.

What is a grave crime?

For certain serious crimes, a youth’s case will start in the Youth Court but may be transferred to a Crown Court. Some of these serious crimes are referred to by the Criminal Justice System as ‘grave crimes’. Grave crimes are defined by section 91(1) Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (‘the Act’) as:

  • An offence that could attract a custodial sentence of fourteen years or more, in relation to a person aged twenty-one or over
  • Sexual assault 
  • Child sex offences committed by children or young persons
  • Sexual activity with a child family member
  • Inciting a child family member to engage in sexual activity

Grave crimes also include the following offences:

  • Possession of certain firearms listed in section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968
  • Provided that the offence was committed after 6 April 2007, at a time when the youth was aged 16 or over
  • The court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify the imposition of a custodial sentence greater than the required minimum term
  • The relevant offence is using someone to mind a weapon and at the time of the offence, the youth was aged 16 or over and possession of the firearm would normally attract a minimum sentence, and the court takes the view that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or the offender which justify it not imposing a minimum sentence of not less than three years.

When may a youth be tried in the Crown Court?

If there is a real prospect that, should they be convicted of the grave crime with which they are charged, a youth will receive a custodial sentence of substantially more than two years (which is the maximum sentence in the Youth Court), then they may have their case sent to the Crown Court for trial.

Should a youth be convicted on indictment of a grave crime, and the court is of the opinion that neither a youth rehabilitation order, or a detention and training order, is suitable, then the court may sentence the youth to a period in custody that does not exceed the maximum term of imprisonment with which the offence is punishable in the case of an offender aged 21 or over. This, in effect, means that a Crown Court judge may pass a sentence of imprisonment of the same term that would be imposed upon an adult in relation to the same offence.

What is the procedure for determining venue?

In every case involving a grave crime, the magistrates should be invited to consider which court the youth should be tried in. When deciding whether a ‘grave crime’ offence must be sent to the Crown Court (either for trial in the case of an indicated not guilty plea, or sentence in the case of an indicated guilty plea), the Youth Court will consider the age of the youth:

  • For ten to 11 year olds, and those aged 12 to 14 but not a persistent offender, the question to be considered by the court is whether the offence is of such gravity that, despite the normal prohibition on passing a custodial sentence for a person of this age, is a sentence substantially exceeding two years a realistic possibility?
  • For 12 to 17 year olds for whom a detention and training order cannot be imposed, the question for consideration is whether the offence is of such gravity that a sentence substantially exceeding two years is a realistic possibility.

If the Youth Court finds that a sentence substantially exceeding two years would not be available in the particular case, then the youth must be tried or sentenced by the Youth Court.

The principles set out by Leveson J in R on the application of H, A and O v Southampton Youth Court [2004] EWHC 2912 Admin are relevant to the issue of which court a youth should be sent to:

  • The general policy is that those under 18 years of age should be tried in the Youth Court. A trial in the Crown Court should be reserved for the most serious cases
  • Generally speaking, first time offenders aged between 12 and 14, and all offenders under the age of 12, should not receive a custodial sentence, and decisions as to jurisdiction should have regard to the fact that the exceptional power to detain a youth for grave offences should not be used to dilute the general principle. Those under fifteen will rarely attract a period of detention. Those under 12 will attract one even more rarely
  • In every case, the Youth Court should ask itself whether there is a real prospect that the youth defendant might require a sentence of, or over, two years, or notwithstanding the fact that the sentence might be less than two years, there is some unusual feature of the case which justifies the Youth Court declining jurisdiction. Note that the absence of a power to impose a detention and training order because the defendant is under 15 is not an unusual feature

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