Children and the court system

There are several occasions when children may be directly or indirectly involved in the court system, and they will often require support through the process.

Please note – court systems and laws differ across the countries of the UK. We have covered the courts in England and Wales. Specific information is available for courts in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In the UK, there are three types of court that children and young people may be involved with: tribunals, the criminal court and the family court (part of the civil court system). However, they are most likely to be involved with the latter two.

Tribunals are also part of the civil court system and, with regards to children and young people, hear cases like disputes about EHC plans, benefits and job-related issues.

Criminal court

Crown and Magistrates’ courts hear cases where individuals are accused of breaking the law, such as robbery, murder and driving offences.

Youth courts deal with cases against people aged 10 to 17 (in Scotland they have Children’s Hearings for 12-17 year-olds), involving theft and burglary, anti-social behaviour, and drug offences. If a person under 18 is charged with a serious offence like murder or rape, the case will start in the youth court before being passed to the Crown Court.

Youth courts are less formal than the Crown or Magistrates’ courts because they do not use a jury, a parent or carer must attend if the young person is under 16, and members of the public are not allowed in the court.

A youth court can give community sentences and detention or training orders which will be carried out in secure centres for young people.

Family court

Family court deals with issues related to families, such as, divorce, childcare proceedings and domestic abuse.

Family court is less formal than criminal court. The rules of evidence are not as strict, and witnesses are not required to take an oath before they testify. There is no jury, and family court judges can use their discretion to consider the best interests of the child when making a ruling.

Childcare proceedings

There are two types of childcare proceedings:

  • Public law– relates to court proceedings where the local authority has made an application to court because of concerns about the care that a child is receiving. The local authority requests to share responsibility for the child and have a legal right to have a say in that child’s upbringing (e.g., regarding where they live, who they have contact with, etc.) In these cases, there should be an allocated social worker and it is likely that there will be ongoing involvement from the local authority once the court order is made.
  • Private law – relates to court proceedings where a person has gone to court to resolve an issue within their private lives and the court has made an order relating to a child.(e.g.,  two parents cannot agree on what should happen in terms of care for a child or where a child should live).  It may also include matters such as preventing children leaving the UK if there are concerns about female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Court proceedings because of private law applications do not necessarily involve either the local authority or the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS), however the court may ask for them to be involved.  Equally, there may be no ongoing involvement from the local authority.

What might the impact be?

The experience of being involved in a court case can differ from one child to the next, regardless of whether they are the victim, the defendant, a witness or are incidentally involved.

  • Involvement with the courts can be stressful to physical and emotional ill health.
  • In both criminal and civil courts the decision rests with someone else, and can lead children and young people to feel they have no control over their future.
  • The outcome of court could significantly change the child’s life, for example, they may have to move home, change school, be taken into care, or face a custodial sentence.
  • There may be many unanswered questions that leave the child feeling confused about what is happening to them and what the outcomes may be.
  • Court appearances may cause / entrench conflict within families or groups.
  • There may be personal risk involved.
  • Children may be absent from their education setting.

How can we help?

Any court hearing is a confrontational and adult-focused process which then attempts to adapt to the needs of children as necessary. Even if a child is not directly involved, but they know someone who is involved, they could potentially pick up information through overheard conversations or from the people involved telling them things to get one over on the other party in the proceedings.

The implication for safeguarding is significant because children and young people may require emotional support, may need plans in place to protect them from others due to their involvement in a court case or may need a regular routine to counter the disruption in their home lives.

Children and young people who have been found guilty of crimes and received custodial sentences, Criminal Behaviour Orders, Community Protection Notices or been added to the Sex Offenders Register may need to be risk-assessed as part of safeguarding measures when they return to an education setting. They may also need additional support to reduce the risk of re-offending.

More information on court processes …

For more information about the different orders that can be made in family court, see our Types of Order post.

For information about giving evidence in court, see our Courting Trouble post.

Keep talking

It’s important to talk with children and young people and their parents or carers to ensure you have the full story about what is going on in their life. Only then can you ensure they get the right support when they need it. This may require patience and perseverance, because some families may feel embarrassed and may be reluctant to discuss it with you.

Creating spaces in settings where children and young people feel safe and able to speak about how they feel can encourage children to seek help when they need it.

If you have concerns about a child or young person you know is involved with the court system, speak to your DSL to see what extra support can be provided that is tailored to meet their individual needs.


  • Going to court – a young person’s guide

    These resources from CAFCASS are designed to help children and young people understand what happens in the family courts.

  • Youth crime

    The CPS has more information about how the justice system deals with young offenders in court on their webpage. It also includes details about the Youth Witness Initiative, designed to help support young witnesses in court.

  • Being a witness

    Here you can find two guides, one for 5 -11-year-olds and one for 12-17-year-olds, to help support children and young people prepare to give evidence in court.

  • Children and young people in the family justice system

    These resources from CAFCASS can provide helpful insights for professionals working with children and young people involved in the family justice system.

  • A young person’s guide to care proceedings

    If you know a child or young person who is struggling to understand what is going on with their family and care proceedings, this guide from CAFCASS may help them.

  • Child arrangements information

    The Ministry of Justice has an online child arrangements information tool with clear and concise information on the dispute resolution service. This may be useful for some parents and carers and increase understanding of the process for professionals working with children.

  • Supporting the youngest children in the youth justice system

    This report from the Local Government Association looks at what works to support both offenders and victims who have been involved with the justice system. It also covers effective approaches to help prevent re-offending and improve outcomes.

  • The CAPRICORN Framework

    Public Health England has created a framework, Collaborative approaches to preventing offending and re-offending by children (CAPRICORN), to help organisations work together to prevent young people offending and re-offending.

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