Between April 2018 and March 2019 there were 4,500 recorded knife and weapons offences committed by children in London.
This five-part blog series documents a week in the life of Darrell-Ennis Gayle, a Senior Associate in Hodge Jones & Allen’s Criminal Defence team, representing youths in police stations and courts across South East London. The names have been changed, but the cases are real and represent a true reflection of the impact of knife crime and the experiences of youths in the criminal justice system.
Day One – Monday
I arrive at the magistrate’s court in South East London at 9.30am. My role today is duty solicitor in the youth court. The Duty Solicitor Scheme is a government funded service which provides that a person may be represented at court by a solicitor (for the first hearing of a case only) free of charge if they do not have their own legal representation in place.
After signing in on arrival with the court usher, I wait in the duty solicitors’ room for further instruction. The usher will let me know if anyone requires my services as and when the defendants sign in with the court. In the youth court the defendants are all juveniles under seventeen years of age.
People begin to trickle into the court foyer as the 10am court sitting time approaches and most of the defendants on the list, give or take a few absentees and the usual late arrivals, have arrived by the time the youth court room opens. The area has a high representation of black and ethnic minorities. However, being a man of colour myself, it is still concerning to me to see that the vast majority of the boys who have attended court that day are black and brown skinned. There are no female defendants.
Soon enough the court foyer is crowded with the boys and their parents or guardians, who are required by law to attend court with all youth defendants. Everyone looks fed up. Nobody wants to be there, especially the parents and guardians who wear a variety of expressions of anger, frustration and shame on their faces.
The usher directs me to two boys who are unrepresented. I take down their names and obtain the case papers from the court prosecutor. Both are charged with possession of a bladed article (a knife) in a public place. As a matter of fact, out of the twenty or so boys in court that morning, at least two thirds of them are appearing there having been charged with weapons offences. Unfortunately, this statistic is no surprise to me.
I introduce myself to the first boy, Adam, who is accompanied by his father. We go into the duty solicitors’ room and proceed to discuss his case. After the introductions and an explanation of my role, I take Adam through the case papers and explain the legal implications before asking him to provide me with his instructions. I always ask youth clients if they would be more comfortable discussing the case with me alone as often, and quite understandably, youths can be inhibited with a parent or guardian listening intently to their account of why they have been charged with an offence. Adam chooses to have his father present throughout the consultation.
Adam is fourteen years old. His charge relates to an incident where, following being stopped and searched by police officers, he was found in possession of a large hunting knife. His explanation is that he attends school in the local area where he is preparing for his GCSE’s. He says that there had been a lot of incidents lately where gangs of boys had been approaching students outside of the school, threatening them and sometimes robbing them at knifepoint. He explained that he is worried about this happening to him so now carried a knife for protection.
To say Adam’s father was disappointed in his son would be an understatement. He explains that, up until recently, he had never had any problems with Adam, but that he and Adam’s mother had recently separated and since then Adam had started to misbehave both at home and at school. Since the separation, Adam lives with him because his mother is unable to discipline him.
Despite his disappointment, Adam’s father goes on to say that he knows Adam is bright and could be a high achiever at school if he put his mind to it. He explains that, as a black man growing up in London in the 1980’s and encountering racism, he himself had to work extremely hard to become a civil engineer. He says he is all too aware of the increase in youth violence in his local area and, although he is angry with his son, he is determined to support him and is terrified of losing him.
I explain the law in that it is an offence to have a knife of that description in a public place without a lawful reason and that, in light of Adam’s instructions about having the knife for protection, he has little choice but to plead guilty to the offence. The fact that he says he had the knife for his protection under those circumstances is not a defence in law.
I go on to explain that, because this is Adam’s first offence, he will be sentenced to a Youth Referral Order. This is a sentence where the convicted youth is required to attend appointments and engage with the Youth Offending Service for a certain period of time. The purpose is to rehabilitate and support rather than simply punish the youth and it is an opportunity for them to avoid being criminalised as the conviction is spent after the term of the order is completed. I make it clear, however, that the court would not take this approach again if Adam was subsequently convicted of another offence, and that a prison sentence would be inevitable if he were to be convicted of another weapons offence as the courts adopt a strict two strike policy for repeat weapons offenders.
The matter is called before the court and Adam pleads guilty to the offence when the charge is put to him. After the prosecution open the facts, I put forward Adam’s mitigation which includes his explanation of him having the knife for his protection. I also explain that he had been doing well at school, but had suffered some personal upheaval following the separation of his parents and that this behaviour was quite out of character for him. As expected he is sentenced to a Youth Referral Order for a term of nine months.
Afterwards I meet with the second boy, Jay. He is fifteen years old and is accompanied by his grandmother, a very proud hard working Jamaican woman in her sixties. Jay had been stopped and searched by officers whilst acting suspiciously riding his bicycle. He was found in possession of a kitchen knife with a nine inch blade.
Jay’s explanation is straight forward and all too familiar to me. He had been receiving threats from boys from a rival neighbourhood and feared being assaulted by them so was carrying the knife for protection. Jay’s grandmother explains that she is his foster carer and that he has been placed with her due to difficulties his mother had been having with substance misuse. She tells me that Jay had been excluded from school for behavioural issues and is currently attending a pupil referral unit.
Jay’s grandmother further explains that he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and therefore finds it hard to concentrate and behave himself. However, she describes him as a gentle boy who has never been in trouble with the police before now. She expresses great fear for him as the neighbourhood they live in is rife with gang related violence. I advise that, in light of his instructions, Jay should plead guilty to the charge and that he will be sentenced to a Youth Referral Order given his age and that this is his first offence.
Jay’s case is called before the court and he pleads guilty to the charge when it is put to him. The prosecutor opens the facts and I mitigate on his behalf. After I finish my submissions, the district judge decides to address Jay directly and asks him to explain himself. Jay stands up and nervously shifts from side to side on the spot. With his hands in pockets and looking down at his feet he quietly explains to the court that he had the knife for protection. I try not to roll my eyes after having heard these words too many times today, but, as Jay stands there I notice for the first time how vulnerable he seems and realise that he is just a scared boy standing there before the court.
I speak with both boys together after the hearings. I had not realised before that Adam and Jay were actually friends. As usual, I give them my youth pep talk, trying not to sound too condescending. I tell them that carrying a knife is dangerous, that it is not simply the fact that they could hurt someone, but that often knives are taken from the person carrying them and then used against themselves. I tell them that they both have bright futures ahead of them and have been given a second chance by the court, but that if they were ever convicted of another knife offence they would go straight to prison. I bid them farewell and (as I do with all the youth clients I first meet) tell them very firmly that I never ever want to see them again.
To read the second part of the series, please click here.