Four nations and juvenile justice: shared history, different futures

Four nations and juvenile justice: shared history, different futures

 Dr Kate Bradley (University of Kent) argues that a four nations approach to juvenile history can both deepen our understanding of the subject and raise interesting new questions about the history of the British Isles.

Taking a four nations approach to the history of juvenile justice is essential.  If some of the so-called ‘panics’ over youth crime have tended to focus on English urban youth as a signal for malaise in British society, how youthful offenders have been dealt with by the justice system depends on where they happened to be. 

The Children Act 1908 was a landmark piece of legislation in juvenile justice.  Its provisions were wide ranging, including infant welfare protection and restricting the sale of alcohol and tobacco to minors.  The most important development from this Act was the introduction of juvenile courts.  These courts took their inspiration from experiments in the United States which favoured the treatment of youthful offenders rather than their punishment: the aim was to look at the overall picture of the child or young person’s life and to work on the factors that drove them to offend.  These courts dealt with both care and criminal cases.  Although the birch would remain popular with more traditional magistrates until 1948 when it was removed as an option for the courts, the use of probation and supervision orders became more common in the interwar period as the rehabilitative ethos gradually spread.  Most importantly for this blog post, this Act applied in all three jurisdictions of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

In the case of England and Wales, the First World War disrupted the development of the rehabilitative potential of the juvenile courts.  The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 was in many ways an act to properly embed the 1908 Act in the justice system, through its more extensive requirements with regard to the function of the courts and its dual role in dealing with both needy children and those who had offended.  The rehabilitative bent of the English and Welsh system remained in the ascendant in the 1940s and 1950s, despite the rise in juvenile crime during the Second World War, which failed to abate in peacetime.  As well as the abolition of the birch in 1948, the Ingleby Report of 1961 called for rehabilitative and preventative work to be at the centre of English and Welsh juvenile justice.  The Children and Young Persons Act of 1969 originally aimed to decriminalise children and young people, but was dramatically scaled back by an incoming Conservative government.  Since the 1970s, the rehabilitative aims have been set against political calls from both Labour and the Conservatives to be tough on crime and anti-social behaviour. 

The Act had very different trajectories in Ireland and Scotland.  In the former, the Act remains in the primary piece of juvenile justice legislation, having been passed and implemented before independence.  Adaptations to the 1908 Act provisions were made in Scotland as a result of the Morton Committee’s report of 1928, resulting in the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Acts of 1932 and 1937.  The Kilbrandon Committee reported in 1964 that the emphasis in juvenile justice needed to be on educating wayward youngsters, not on punishing them.  To this end, children’s hearings were established in 1971 – these were to be overseen by lay members rather than being courts of law.  Despite the shared foundations provided by the Children Act 1908, the four nations have developed juvenile justice in distinct ways, shedding light not only on the different legal systems but also different political and social priorities.

These important differences in legal approaches and frameworks have been reflected in the work of recent historians.  David F. Smith has explored juvenile delinquency and official responses to it during the two world wars in both England and Scotland; Louise Jackson and Angela Bartie’s recent Policing Youth: Britain 1945-70 compares English and Scottish case studies.[1]  Paul Sargent’s Wild Arabs and Savages explores the emergence of the juvenile justice system in Ireland.[2]  A common theme in all of these, and indeed my own work on juvenile justice in London, is the growing consensus amongst professionals about the need to educate the young, as informed by developments in psychology and social work.[3]  Through this, we can start to see the classed dimensions of the networks of magistrates, social workers and researchers; we can also see the ways in which the various churches were a vital element of the system in terms of their provision of institutional care, as well as their cultural contribution.  We also need to be alert to the flows of information and expertise between the different nations, and the world beyond, notably, but not exclusively, the United States. 

A four nations approach to juvenile justice history is not only accurate in terms of the legal jurisdictions, but also opens up a series of wider questions about the history of the British Isles.

[1] David Smith, ‘Official Responses to Juvenile Delinquency in Scotland During the Second World War’, Twentieth Century British History, 18 (2007): 78-105; Louise Jackson and Angela Bartie, Policing Youth: Britain 1945-70 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014).

[2] Paul Sargent, Wild Arabs and Savages: A History of Juvenile Justice in Ireland. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[3] Kate Bradley, ‘Becoming delinquent in the post-war welfare state: England and Wales, 1945-1970’, in Heather Ellis (ed), Juvenile Delinquency and the Limits of Western Influence 1850-2000(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014), pp.227-47.

Kate Bradley is a Senior Lecturer in Social History and Social Policy at the University of Kent. Kate’s work covers aspects of juvenile justice and welfare, voluntary action, citizenship and social justice in the period after 1918. Recent work related to this post includes ‘Rational recreation in the age of affluence: the café and working-class youth in London, ca.1939-1965’ in Erika Rappaport et al (eds) Consuming Behaviours: Politics, Identity and Pleasure in Twentieth Century Britain.  London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015 and ‘Becoming delinquent in the post-war welfare state: England and Wales, 1945-1970’, in Heather Ellis (ed), Juvenile Delinquency and the Limits of Western Influence 1850-2000.  Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014.


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