There is no typical victim of modern slavery. Victims are of all ages, nationalities, genders and ethnicities. It is a complex landscape. Children are particularly vulnerable to criminal exploitation; in 2021, the largest group of people processed by modern slavery systems were British children. For most of these children, criminal exploitation means involvement in organised criminal networks known as ‘county lines’.
This is where the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) comes in. A framework designed to enable first responders to identify potential victims of modern slavery and refer them on for appropriate support, it often comes into conflict with the criminal justice system. If, for example, a defendant is referred to the NRM the criminal process must be adjourned until a ‘conclusive’ decision is made. In effect, criminal proceedings must pause until this civil process decides whether or not the defendant is a victim of exploitation.
Pam Bowen from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told us why the pause to proceedings is unavoidable, including international legal obligations and the way the NRM decision feeds into the CPS’ decision of whether to prosecute. However, Fran Thornton-Dale, a legal adviser, highlighted that even where the child is a victim this does not always mean they have a defence under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
However unavoidable, the pause can cause huge delays. It can be extremely frustrating for magistrates to see that such delays are preventing children from getting outcomes from the youth court process and the support they need from youth offending teams.
We were told that the Home Office had recruited more staff to reduce the delays, and we learnt about processes and pilots that may help reduce delays for children with a pending NRM decision. Joe Calouri from Crest Advisory, a criminal justice research consultancy, spoke about the new devolved decision-making pilot programmes that have been rolled out in ten areas across England and Wales, with 14 more to come in 2023. These take the decision away from the Home Office or Salvation Army and into the communities where the children live. They involve youth workers, police and other experts and aim to make decisions within three months, rather than forcing the child wait up to 580 days for a centralised decision.
I was also glad to share the innovative approach to case management taken by some Welsh legal advisors and district judges (in conjunction with CPS and defence advocates) that has helped ensure that children’s cases are heard as soon as possible. I encourage magistrates to raise the potential of similar collaborative approaches with their panel and bench chairs.
Attendees’ questions reflected the understanding that NRM wasn’t initially created for its current usage and that the numbers have far exceeded what was originally envisaged.
I encourage all youth court magistrates to watch the recording of the breakout session to learn more about these pilots. Magistrates should not be discouraged by delays that the NRM can bring. If we learn to ask the right questions of all the various professionals in court, we can potentially reduce the delays we are currently facing, while we await the outcome of ongoing pilots.