The present article, “An Analysis of the Juvenile Justice System And Laws In The UK” will examine the various institutions, legislations and procedures dealing with juvenile offenders of the United Kingdom (‘UK’). The juvenile justice system of any liberal democracy strives for restitution and rehabilitation of its juvenile offenders. The principles laid down by the 1989 United Nations… Read More »

The present article, “An Analysis of the Juvenile Justice System And Laws In The UK” will examine the various institutions, legislations and procedures dealing with juvenile offenders of the United Kingdom (‘UK’). The juvenile justice system of any liberal democracy strives for restitution and rehabilitation of its juvenile offenders. The principles laid down by the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, (‘UNCRC’) have greatly influenced the development of...

The present article, “An Analysis of the Juvenile Justice System And Laws In The UK” will examine the various institutions, legislations and procedures dealing with juvenile offenders of the United Kingdom (‘UK’).

The juvenile justice system of any liberal democracy strives for restitution and rehabilitation of its juvenile offenders. The principles laid down by the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, (‘UNCRC’) have greatly influenced the development of child rights and juvenile justice legislation in signatory countries. The United Kingdom, a signatory of the UNCRC, has also translated the principles of the UNCRC into its present juvenile justice system.

I. Introduction

There are about 4.7 million young people between 10 and 17 in England and Wales. Of those about 130,000 committed an offence dealt with by the courts; in all there were nearly 300,000 offences in 2006/7. Of these, 236,000 were committed by boys and 60,000 by girls. The most common offences were theft and violence against the person (both 56,000), criminal damage (41,000) and motoring offences (37,000). Other notable offences are drugs (12,000) robbery (7,000) burglary (5,700) and sexual offences (1,800).”[1]

The above statistics from the years 2006-2007 in the United Kingdom illustrate the magnitude of crimes committed by young people. In order to deal with the same, a separate legal framework with procedural safeguards are required to tackle the unique challenges that young offenders pose to law enforcement and social workers. Section 37 (1) of the Crime and Disorder Act, 1998 states in so many words that the primary objective of the juvenile justice system is “to prevent offending by children and young persons.”[2]

The UNCRC is a comprehensive document that contains a set of universal legal principles or norms calling for the protection and well-being of children. The Convention stipulates that children are to be prevented from being kept in custody, and according to Article 37 of the Convention, imprisonment of a child should only be a measure of last resort.[3] Article 3 of the UNCRC states that when the authorities of a state take decisions that affect children, the best interest of children must be a primary consideration. This principle applies to decisions by courts of law, administrative authorities, law enforcement and police.[4]

Principles of child rights become relevant in juvenile justice laws and procedures because the state does not dismiss the case of young offenders, but tries to balance their interests with that of public order, thereby ensuring that they may become law-abiding citizens in the future. Thus, a separate legal framework with separate courts, in most cases, is the approach taken for juvenile justice administration in the United Kingdom. For example, if young offenders, convicted of theft were put into the same prison systems as older, hardened criminals- they would likely be influenced by the older inmates and take to crime with renewed vigour.

The article will first, examine the historical development of laws governing juvenile justice. Secondly, important legal definitions will be discussed. Thirdly, the legal framework for the juvenile justice system will be discussed.

II. Historical Development of Laws Relating to Juvenile Justice

The British legal system evolved to provide legal safeguards for children with the development of reformatory and industrial schools.[5] Along with protections, this included punitive measures for dealing with the introduction of compulsory elementary school education in 1870.[6] In 1889, the Children’s Charter was introduced, a formal document that safeguarded against cruelty in public life and enabled the state in its instrumentalities to intervene in family life, when abusive.[7]

While the protection of children was included in the Children’s Charter, the problem of dealing with juvenile offenders, and the accompanying issues of whether to create separate courts to try them and so on- was not yet settled. Thus, the public policy position on treating delinquency and juvenile offenders was still nascent until 1908. This is when the Children Act of 1908 was introduced. Along with protective provisions relating to the prevention of cruelty and infant life protection- the 1908 Act also dealt with prohibition of smoking in juveniles and the creation of juvenile courts, inter alia other provisions.[8]

While the 1908 Act did not introduce substantive provisions relating to youth offenses, it formally established juvenile courts to the British criminal justice system.

The 1907 Probation Act formally introduced probation as a means of administering punishment, albeit in a lesser form, as part of the penal system.[9] Prior to the 1960s, probation was routinely used to deal with child and young adult offenders. Probationers would be made to stay in a boy’s club away from bad influences, and a probationary officer would visit to ensure that the terms of probation were being satisfied and the needs of the probationer was being met.[10]

The subsequent legislation, the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933, was enacted after much discussion on the role of juvenile courts and delinquency in the country. Shortly after the passage of the 1908 Act, the then Home Secretary, William Joyson-Hicks appointed a committee led by Sir Thomas Molony to study the treatment of young offenders or juvenile offenders.[11] The report of the Molony committee influenced the passage of the 1933 Act, with the report concluding that “…the welfare of the child or young person should be the primary object of the juvenile court.”[12]

The Molony committee report also recommended the use of probation as a means of penalization for young offenders. This was because it put the young offender under the guidance and care of a law-abiding adult, who could be a good influence for the offender.

Since then, various amendments and enactments have improved the theoretical framework of the juvenile justice system, but for the purposes of this article, the above legislations are sufficient for explaining the evolution in legal principles.

III. Definitions Of Child and Young People

Child and Young People

The legal definition for a young person or child to whom the juvenile justice framework will apply is important to understand. Article 1 of the UNCRC states that, “…a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”[13] In the UK, the legal significance of ‘child’ and ‘young person’ are different. A ‘child’ refers to a person who is under the age of 14 years.[14] However, a ‘young person’ is one who is above the age of 14 years and under the age of 18 years.[15]

It has been noted that the term ‘juvenile’ while widely used in legal parlance and law enforcement administration, is being increasingly rejected as a descriptor of young people because of the negative connotations of childishness and immaturity it carries.[16]

The Age of Criminal Responsibility

The Latin maxim doli incapax refers to the legal conception that children of a certain age are incapable of forming the requisite intention or mens rea required for committing an offence, unless the prosecution were able to prove that the child was aware of the consequences of his/her actions. In India, Section 82 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, mention that no act committed by children under the age of 7 is an offense.[17]

Similarly, Section 50 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933 holds that no child under ten can commit any offence, and this is a conclusive presumption.[18] However, in certain cases where there is a grievous offence, this presumption may be rebutted as in the case of the murder of a two-year-old boy, James Bulger in 1993, by a couple of ten-year-old boys. The pair were tried as adults in an adult court as it was an exceptional circumstance.

IV. Juvenile Justice Framework

The juvenile justice framework refers to relevant legislation, institutions like the court system and juvenile homes or penal institutions for convicted young offenders. Most major criminal legislation include provisions that deal with youth crime specifically. For example, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has several provisions like this. A few categories of such provisions are as follows-

  1. Youth crime and disorder (Part I, Chapter I, Sections 8-16)
  2. Youth justice (Part III, Sections 37-42, 47-52B)
  3. Dependent on drugs; Reprimands and warnings; youth cautions, youth conditional cautions (Part IV, Sections 61-66G)

The various crimes a young person may be arrested for include possession and use of psychoactive substances in violation of legislation[19]; engaging in school bullying; physical assault; violent crimes; sexual offences and child abuse;[20] motoring offences; rape and other offences against children under 13 years and so on.[21]

A. Offence Provisions and Procedure

In general, a child (under the age of 10 years) should not be arrested,[22] however if a young person (a person between 14 to 18 years of age) is arrested and he/she turns out to be a child, he/she shall be immediately released.[23] If at all, a child may be detained in custody for up to 72 hours, after which the relevant constable in charge must make arrangements for the investigation to proceed.[24]

After a young person has been charged with the commission of an offence, he/she must be produced before the appropriate magisterial court.[25] While a young person who has been arrested under a warrant is mandated to not be released,[26] he/she is not to be detained in a police cell unless no other accommodation is available.[27]

B. The Court System

When a young person is charged with an offence, they are made to appear before a youth court. Youth courts were established in the 1908 and stood separate from the adult criminal justice system. If the case cannot be disposed at once, the young person may be put on bail or remanded back into judicial custody.[28] Where the young person pleads not guilty to a conviction, at the trial date, the magisterial court will then determine the accused’s final conviction. In case the crime is very serious, it may be sent to the Crown Court for trial/sentence.[29]

  1. Youth Court

The youth court is a section of the adult magistrate’s court and is often located in the same premises.[30] It deals with cases involving young people (that is those under the age of 18 years.) Peopled by youth panel magistrates and district judges, the youth court has the power to pass orders directing detention and training up to 24 months.[31] They may also pass community service sentences. These include:[32]

    • Supervision Order
    • Community Rehabilitation Order • Community Punishment Order • Action Plan Order
    • Attendance Centre Order
    • Referral Order
    • Reparation Order
    • Fine
    • Conditional Discharge
    • Absolute Discharge

The youth courts are structured to be less formal than the adult magistrate’s court, and seek to reduce the tension of an adversarial system by engaging with the family of the young person. Rather than open courts, they are private courts or in-camera and are not open to members of the public.[33]

  1. Custodial Disposals

In cases where serious offences have occurred, custodial disposals are ordered by the youth courts or transferred to the crown courts. These may be for:[34]

    • The Detention and Training Order
    • Sentences for Serious Offences
    • Sentences for Public Protection and for Certain Violent or Sexual Offences
  1. Accommodation For Sentenced And Or Remanded Offenders

There are three major categories of establishment in which young persons sentenced or remanded to custody in UK can be placed:[35]

    • secure children’s homes
    • secure training centres (STCs)
    • young offender institutions (YOIs).

V. Conclusion

The present article has discussed the juvenile justice framework in the UK with reference to the legal provisions, procedures in law enforcement and court systems.


[1] I. Blakeman, The Youth Justice System of England and Wales, Available Here

[2] Ibid.

[3] A. Mittal, Juvenile Justice- A Comparative Study with UK, Legal Service India, Available Here

[4] A. Bajpai, Child Rights in India: Law, Policy and Practice, 3rd ed., 2017.

[5] K. Bradley, Juvenile Delinquency And The Evolution Of The British Juvenile Courts, C.1900-1950, History in Focus, Archives, Available Here

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] H. Hendrick, Child Welfare: England 1872 – 1989 (London, 1994) pp. 121-5.

[9] Supra, at note 5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Article 1, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989.

[14] Supra, at note 1.

[15] Section 117, Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

[16] Supra, at note 1.

[17] Section 82, the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[18] Section 50, Children and Young Persons Act, 1933.

[19] Psychoactive Substances Act, 2016.

[20] Sections 5-8, Sexual Offences Act, 2003

[21] Youth Offenders, (28/04/2020), Crown Prosecution Service, Available Here

[22] Section 16 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1984

[23] Section 34(2) of Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984

[24] Supra, at note 3.

[25] Section 46(1) of Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984

[26] Schedule 6, Para 19(b), Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984.

[27] Supra, at note 3.

[28] Supra, at note 1.

[29] Supra, at note 1.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Supra, at note 1.


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Updated On 2022-01-13T06:59:48+05:30
Devanjali Banerjee

Devanjali Banerjee

West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences

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