Procedural justice and problem-solving practice in the Youth Court

Work with offenders looks at the latest in HM Inspectorate of Probation’s Academic Insights series.

Last Friday (28 May), the probation inspectorate published the most recent in its now extensive series of Academic Insights, in which it commissions leading academics to present their views on specific topics, in order to promote informed debate and aid the understanding of what helps and what hinders probation and youth offending services.

Gillian Hunter and Jessica Jacobson from the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London, provide an overview of procedural justice, the links to legitimacy, and the research evidence for its positive effects on engagement and cooperation. Drawing on findings from recent research, the authors explore the links between procedural justice and problem-solving, with a focus on the role of youth offending services in supporting and promoting these approaches in the youth court.

What is procedural justice?

Procedural Justice (PJ) – sometimes known as Procedural Fairness – theory argues that experiencing fair and just procedures leads people to view the law and authority figures as legitimate, and to greater compliance with, and commitment to obey, the law. PJ involves four components:

  1. Voice: People need to have the chance to tell their side of the story and to feel that authority figures will sincerely consider this before making a decision.
  2. Neutrality: People need to see authority figures as neutral and principled decision-makers.
  3. Respect: People need to feel respected and treated courteously by authority figures.
  4. Trustworthy motives: Finally, people need to see authority figures as people with trustworthy motives, who are sincere and authentic.

The authors summarise research which helps to identify aspects of professional practice that engender public support and, consequently, is an increasingly prominent theme in policy development and procedural guidance.

Recent guidance for applying procedural justice principles in probation work promotes the importance of politeness and respect in all communications. In supervisory relationships and when preparing reports for the court, staff are encouraged to:

  • be interested
  • ask questions and encourage feedback
  • be transparent about decision-making
  • be clear about role and expectations.

Problem solving courts 

Problem-solving courts are focused on outcomes and rehabilitation. The authority of the court is harnessed to tackle the problems that underlie offending. The problem-solving approach incorporates the following:

  • specialisation to ensure that cases are heard in specialised settings, by trained court professionals who have a thorough understanding of the needs, risks, and assets of the ‘target group’
  • collaboration with other agencies to enhance intervention and supervision opportunities
  • encouraging accountability for individuals’ compliance with the court’s instructions via judicial monitoring, where judges can use incentives such as early termination of order to reward progress or impose sanctions for poor compliance
  • focusing on longer-term outcomes by monitoring impact and continuing to innovate in response to changing circumstances

The researchers demonstrate that procedural justice – the fair and respectful treatment of people in the criminal justice system – is a foundational principle of problem-solving and show that, like procedural justice, a problem-solving approach seeks to increase public support in the legitimacy of the justice system.

The researchers argue that the youth court environment is favourable to problem-solving, with key aspects of the approach already in place. Hearings are heard in specialist courts that are closed to the public and designed to make them more suitable to children. The youth courtroom has a less formal layout and there is guidance emphasising specialist training for youth court practitioners, including the judiciary and advocates, in handling youth cases. This emphasises supporting children’s understanding and engagement in proceedings, and ensuring they are given a ‘voice’ during hearings.

The authors had recently conducted research in five youth courts on problem-solving practice and identified a number of key ways in which Youth Offending Services (YOS) could support procedural justice and problem-solving approaches. These included supporting children’s understanding and engagement in court, informing the courts about defendants (often complex and multiple) needs and co-ordinating interventions and supervision to meet these, as well as providing the courts with regular updates on compliance.


Although the research identified plenty of promising practice, it also identified significant barriers, mainly relating to the lack of resources for YOS and the courts themselves, many of which had been closed and merged. This rationalisation of courts had disrupted some long-established relationships between YOS and magistrates with extensive experience of sitting in the youth court.

The researchers recommend that the Youth Justice Board should co-ordinate emerging best practice and ensure that it shared with practitioners in order to help build both the evidence base and expertise amongst YOS workers.