Shauneen Lambe
Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   United Kingdom

Shauneen Lambe

Shauneen Lambe is changing the criminal justice system’s treatment of young offenders from one of punishment and stigmatization into an opportunity for positive intervention. Through Just for Kids…
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This description of Shauneen Lambe's work was prepared when Shauneen Lambe was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Shauneen Lambe is changing the criminal justice system’s treatment of young offenders from one of punishment and stigmatization into an opportunity for positive intervention. Through Just for Kids Law, Shauneen is reframing the way in which the criminal justice system interacts with children in the U.K. by training legal practitioners, advocating for legislative reform, and bringing legal expertise to tackle the root causes of youth offending.

The New Idea

Just for Kids Law uses the power of the law to fundamentally change the way that young people are treated and supported in the criminal justice system: providing personal support, advocacy, and legal expertise to help young people tackle the problems they face in their daily lives. From her personal experience of working as an attorney defending young people on death row, Shauneen realized that with earlier intervention many of her clients would not have ended up facing the death penalty. She saw that the moment young people first came into contact with the criminal justice system was a crucial tipping point in their lives, when they could be given the appropriate guidance and support to change their futures. Shauneen believes that lawyers are uniquely positioned to identify the broader needs of child defendants and make sure they are addressed. Just for Kids Law staff provide direct representation for children and young people in court, but also in proceedings where legal help is not traditionally available: they help children access housing, training, or re-entry into the education system. Furthermore, their youth advocates ensure that young people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or special educational needs are properly assessed and receive the support they need. Just for Kids Law therefore acts as a bridge between the criminal justice system and the social support available for young people. In many instances, Shauneen advocates for young people who have not received the most basic services they are entitled to receive. By broadening the remit of lawyers defending young people to tackle this problem, Shauneen is introducing a child-led, rights-based approach to addressing youth offending.

As an independent not-for-profit organization, Just for Kids Law can leverage the power of the law to hold all players in the youth justice system accountable. Just for Kids staff use their expertise to threaten local authorities and statutory support organizations with legal action if they do not provide the correct assistance. Their lawyers can also take formal action against legal practitioners who do not abide by the regulations that are in place to protect young people—for example, if a judge fails to protect the annonymity of a young offender. As an independent organization, Just for Kids Law is therefore able to put pressure on all the key stakeholders in the youth justice system to ensure they are providing the best possible support for young people by introducing a level of accountability.

As well as using the law to change the provision of support for young people outside of the courtroom, Shauneen is reframing the way that young people are defended inside the court both through her own legal work and through her training programmes for other lawyers. The way that lawyers traditionally argue a court case is focused narrowly on the act of the crime itself and whether a judgement of guilty or not-guilty can be reached. However, Shauneen believes that a broader perspective must be used, incorporating mitigation: understanding the personal stories that might have led a young person to offend, such as their parental situation, housing needs or medical circumstances, and using them as mitigating factors when judging and sentencing. Shauneen sees Just for Kids Law as a connector between the two key parties in the criminal justice system—on the one hand influencing the judges, magistrates and lawyers, while at the same time understanding and empathizing with the young people they represent. Shauneen therefore personally takes on the most complex and strategic court cases, to set legal precedents of a child’s rights based approach for the rest of the youth justice sector and to introduce elements of mitigation to youth cases. In addition, Just for Kids Law transforms the youth justice system by training legal practitioners in their models of best practice, mitigation, and personal support for youths. By training lawyers to reveal the reasons that might have led a young person to offend, Shauneen is introducing empathy within the courtroom and allowing the root causes of a young person’s criminal behavior to be addressed. In a legal system and cultural climate that criminalizes youths, Shauneen offers a successful, multi-level solution that will fundamentally change how children experience the youth justice system.

The Problem

The fundamental aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by young people. Yet as it stands 80 percent of young people end up re-offending. The statistics show that the youth justice system is failing to tackle the root causes of criminal behavior among young people. Children in the youth justice system often face multiple and complex challenges. Many come from the most troubled backgrounds, including abusive homes, exclusion from education, and kept in care. A large number have been refused access to the basic services they are legally entitled to receive, such as housing and education. Without early and effective intervention, many of these vulnerable young people will be drawn into a cycle of crime and exclusion from mainstream society: at great cost to the state and to young people themselves.

However instead of tackling the reasons behind youth offending, the U.K. has adopted an increasingly punitive stance—incarcerating more children than any Western country besides the United States. In the past twenty years, the number of children in custody has increased by 795 percent. This trend can be traced back to a landmark trial in 1993, known as the Venables and Thompson case, in which two 11-year-old boys were found guilty of abducting, torturing, and murdering a two-year-old boy. The case received wide coverage in the tabloid press and had a hugely negative impact on the public and political perception of young offenders and the age of criminal responsibility.

In England and Wales the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age, compared to 14 in most European countries. This means that from the age of 10 a child is treated with the same level of responsibility as an adult, despite the fact that he/she does not have the same rights. As a result, children in the U.K. can be tried in adult courts in an inappropriate and intimidating setting, which statistically gives more severe sentences than the equivalent trial in youth courts. The UN Commission on Human Rights has specifically criticized the U.K. for criminalizing its young people and neglecting children’s rights. Nonetheless, since the Venables and Thompson case, there has been little public or political will to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the U.K.

In the U.K., an entire generation of young people have been drawn into the criminal justice system which labels them for life as offenders. However the law is failing to provide these young people with the specialist support they require. Currently, there is no specific training requirement for legal practitioners defending young people, despite the fact that youth law differs fundamentally to adult law. This means that the legal practitioners are often unfamiliar with relevant legislation and specific case law and unable to identify issues concerning the broader vulnerabilities or mental capacity of child defendants. They may not be aware of youth-specific community sentences or with alternative support services that could be available for their clients. Furthermore the youth courts are used as a training ground for newly qualified lawyers. These factors mean that young people are not receiving the services and sentences appropriate to address their offending, and instead move through the system as an increasingly large and voiceless population.

The Strategy

Shauneen’s vision is a system that protects and empowers young people, instead of criminalizing and punishing them. To fulfill this ambition Shauneen has developed a three-fold approach, which focuses on enforcing the duty of care the state has for the welfare of young people, changing the provision of legal representation and support for youths, and reversing the current trend of incaceration in the U.K.

The first part of Shauneen’s strategy focuses on transforming the delivery of personal support and legal representation in the U.K., to ensure that every child receives a minimum level of care. Just for Kids Law is uniquely placed, when necessary, to enforce the duty of care the state has for the welfare of its young people through litigation. The organization thus provides a safety net for the most vulnerable young people to access services. Legal practitioners also have a responsibility to provide children with correct legal support. From her first-hand experience as a barrister, Shauneen recognized the need to develop a short, intensive training program for legal practitioners to enable them to better support and advocate for child defendants. Just for Kids Law has therefore pioneered an innovative training model delivered in part by former juvenile defendants. Hearing from young people who have been supported by Just for Kids Law gives legal practitioners real insight into the direct experiences of young people caught up in the criminal justice system, as well as providing young people with a chance to voice how they want to be treated as a client. This in-depth, one day course helps to develop a real understanding of young peoples’ distinct needs, and improves practitioners’ ability to communicate with young people and thus represent them more effectively, incorporating mitigation techniques to their legal defense work. Legal practitioners are trained in best practices for representing children in criminal proceedings with reference to specific case law regarding young people. The training also highlights the critical role that youth offending teams, psychologists, social workers, and local authorities can play in helping to achieve the best outcomes for young offenders both inside and outside the courtroom.

Last year alone, Just for Kids Law trained over 400 lawyers, judges and magistrates in cities across the country. However, lawyers are not required to attend training before they represent children in criminal proceedings. To counteract this and bring about systemic change within the legal profession, Shauneen plans to establish youth justice advocacy as a specialist field, which would require a minimum level of knowledge and training. While the ambition is for this training to become mandatory for all legal practitioners, it may take many years for this to come about. In the meantime Shauneen is therefore developing a Kitemark to recognize those who have undergone specific youth justice training, creating an incentive for legal practitioners to attend. As well as training legal practitioners, Just for Kids Law also coaches the wider spectrum of youth justice professionals in the law surrounding rights to education, accommodation and social welfare, so that they can advocate effectively on behalf of the young people they work with. By working with all of the key stakeholders in the youth justice system from lawyers, judges and magistrates to the police, youth offending teams and childrens charities, Just for Kids Law is able to fundamentally change the provision of support for young people using the power of the law.

Next, Shauneen must fight against the U.K.’s punitive approach to dealing with young offenders and bring about a reversal in the current trend for incarcerating more children. The second part of Shauneen’s strategy therefore focuses on changing key laws and policies that should help to prevent the unnecessary criminalization of young people. Shauneen has identified several areas of strategic litigation, which will allow her to set new legal precedents such as the overuse of custodial sentences for young people and the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales. Success in these areas will improve legislation and outcomes for all children and ultimately reduce the number of young people being drawn into the criminal justice system.

The training of key legal practitioners and the use of strategic litigation will reduce the punitive and criminalizing trend in the youth justice system. However, it will not fully tackle the root causes of much youth offending: lack of personal support for the most vulnerable youths. Therefore Shauneen also plans to increase the number of young people who can access her model of legal and personal support. She intends to scale Just for Kids Law nationally by embedding her model into existing legal practices around the U.K., leveraging their resources and expertise. Shauneen specifically targets local High Street law firms, who are willing to open a youth justice department as part of their core business to provide specialist legal representation for young people from the community. A Just for Kids branch will then be established in conjuction with each High Street firm to make sure that each child’s rights are also being met outside of the courtroom through mentoring, access to housing, education or mental health services. The decision to target High Street law firms is a key part of Shauneen’s scaling strategy for two reasons, first, Shauneen realized that young people will not leave their local area to receive legal support and thus services must be offered in the community, secondly, High Street law firms are key to her strategy because these firms have a clear incentive to build a good reputation among local clients therefore providing a high-quality service. Each office will have as a goal to become self-sufficient in the long-term, tapping into local funding sources to ensure sustainability.

Having developed the blueprint for the Just for Kids Law model in North and West London in partnership with two different law firms, Shauneen is now ready to focus on spreading a new pattern of legal services for young people across the country. She intends to spread to South and East London before taking her model to other cities in the U.K., such as Birmingham and Manchester. As a non-profit organization, Just for Kids Law raises funds from philanthropic donors including corporations, foundations and individuals, as well as earning revenue from legal aid fees which are provided by the state but do not cover payment for all the work. Ultimately, Shauneen plans to grow Just for Kids Law’s earned income by exploring the potential to monetize their trainings and develop specific resources such as a youth justice manual for legal practitioners.

The Person

Shauneen had an international upbringing, moving between the U.K., Hong Kong, Germany, and Belize before the age of 10. Her father, as an Irishman sent abroad, personally experienced the tensions between the Irish and British in the 1960s and 1970s, and valued tolerance, empathy, and understanding in his children’s upbringing. Shauneen attended a local school in Belize and became immersed in a community of migrants and refugees. She returned to the U.K. to go to boarding school, and went on to study psychology and philosophy at Edinburgh. While studying as an undergraduate, Shauneen was shocked by the lack of basic safeguards against discrimination in the university and strove to promote measures for social justice, successfully establishing the university’s first equal opportunities officer. To support herself financially Shauneen found work accompanying defendants to their court cases, where she witnessed the power of the legal system on people’s lives first-hand and decided to become a lawyer.

In 1995, during Shauneen’s first year of studying law, Englishman Nick Ingram was executed in the U.S. The case received great media attention and Shauneen was shocked by the story’s press coverage. She resolved to go to the U.S. for her summer holidays to work with Nick Ingram’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. Unknown to Shauneen at the time, this would start her on her life-course of working with young people caught up in complex criminal cases. Clive became one of Shauneen’s closest mentors and she continued to help him with death penalty cases in the evenings back in bar school in the U.K. During her summer holiday, she returned to Belize to visit prisoners on death row and witnessed first-hand the terrible living conditions prisoners were subjected to. This experience led her to set up a support fund for the prisoners to sustain their basic rights.

In the U.K. in 1997, Shauneen started practicing as a legal advocate trainee. She found the culture of moral and emotional detachment among her colleagues difficult, and was considering leaving until she managed to channel her energy into working on legal cases. When she completed her training she was the only student not to apply for a permanent position at her law firm. Instead she returned to the U.S. where she created a new program for Clive Stafford Smith’s organization, the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center. This program targeted the most racist parish of Louisiana and provided intensive investigation and litigation to support the unprepared public defenders of youths facing the death penalty. The first case she worked on she joined too late, and to Shauneen’s distress the child was convicted and sentenced to death. Every child she supported from then on was saved from the death penalty, and she realized the difference that quality legal defense could make to a trial’s verdict. It also became clear to her, from looking at the complex backgrounds of young people while preparing cases, that these serious crimes could have been prevented if there had been earlier intervention.

In 1999 Shauneen helped to set up for Clive a U.K.-based organization, Reprieve, supporting the cases of those on death row and drawing attention to human rights for prisoners more broadly. She remained on the board of Reprieve until 2006 and laid the groundwork for the organization from scratch in the U.K.: raising its profile, leading its fundraising efforts, and developing a board and team. Reprieve is now an internationally-renowned human rights group with an annual turnover of nearly £2 million (US$3.2M).

After working in the U.S. for another three years Shauneen returned to the U.K. and started exploring the youth justice sector. She was alarmed by the path of criminalizing youths that the U.K. was on, and approached leaders with her idea for Just for Kids Law, but was met with resistance from legal professionals. She realized that, contrary to her American experience, English lawyers were bypassing any opportunities to link their youth casework to broader issues, strategic litigation, or activism for their clients. It was hard to find law firms at the time specializing in youth justice. She therefore approached Lawrence & Co. solicitors with the proposal to establish the first Youth Justice Department for them, which they accepted. Her client base grew year to year, confirming the unmet need for specialist support of young offenders. In response to the rising demand for additional support for young people in the criminal justice system, Shauneen launched Just for Kids Law as a charitable organization in 2006.

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