Specific mitigating factors relating to age or lack of maturity
The Magistrates Association has just (15 February 2021) published a new report on how the issue of maturity is currently handled within magistrates’ courts. Based on research funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the report, written by George Moody, argues that all young adult defendants’ maturity should be assessed before they come to court and magistrates should receive training on the issue of maturity.
The issue of how young adults should be treated within the criminal justice system has been the subject of extensive research in recent years and has also been considered by two recent Justice Select Committee inquiries. However, most of the research to date has been restricted to crown courts, despite the fact that the majority of criminal offences that come to court are dealt with entirely in magistrates’ courts. The graphic reproduced from the report below shows that high offending rates persist well past the age threshold of 18 years when defendants in the UK are treated as adults.
With the publication of new Sentencing Council guidelines in 2019 providing more detail on the specific mitigating factor relating to age or lack of maturity, the MA thought it was important to gather the experiences of magistrates on dealing with young adults and their developing maturity.
The report brings together the key findings from MA research into magistrates’ understanding of maturity and how it is currently handled within magistrates’ courts. The research included a survey of magistrates, a series of focus groups with magistrates, and a roundtable with other court participants including representatives from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, community rehabilitation companies, youth offending teams and defence solicitors.
The overarching finding of this research was that the issue of maturity is not raised often in magistrates’ courts. When maturity was raised in court, it was rarely raised as a factor early in the process. The research revealed that magistrates felt information on a defendant’s maturity needs to be available to the court by the first hearing, if possible, and definitely before any trial, so that the bench can ensure that the defendant is able to participate fairly and effectively.
Magistrates told the researcher that in the rare occasions that concerns around maturity were raised at this early stage,
it was most often being introduced by defence lawyers. Importantly, magistrates said they would prefer evidence of a lack of maturity to be not based on representations from lawyers but on robust, independent assessments, carried out by Liaison and Diversion teams.
It was more common for magistrates to see the issue of maturity being raised post-conviction but before sentencing, in
which case it was most likely to be mentioned by the probation service in a pre-sentence report (PSR). Even where the
subject was raised as an issue post-conviction, however, magistrates often felt they were not receiving enough
information for it to be effectively considered in their decision-making.
For example, PSRs did not always contain sufficient detail of the type of assessment carried out, how lack of maturity might relate to the offence, and whether it had affected sentencing recommendations. It was agreed that information must be specific to the case before a bench – with assessments carried out on the individual – and any lack of maturity should be linked to offending behaviour, as well as to whether specific sentencing options might be more appropriate or effective due to maturity assessments.
Two overarching recommendations arose from this research:
- More independent assessments on maturity need to be carried out before the first hearing.
- Training needs to be provided to magistrates to give them a general understanding of maturity and how it affects both participation of young adults in court and sentencing decisions.
Commenting on the report, Magistrates Association chief executive Jon Collins said:
‘There has been extensive research about developing maturity, and the apparent cliff edge for young people when they turn 18 in respect of the criminal justice system. Given that magistrates deal with the majority of criminal cases, it was important to get their views on this issue.
Magistrates recognise that more training on the issue of maturity would be beneficial, while assessments of young adult defendants’ maturity should be carried out routinely before they come to court. This would help magistrates to be better-informed about the people appearing before them, which would in turn support improved court practice and fairer, more effective sentencing.’