About This Issue

Representing children in juvenile court is a complex and specialized area of practice. It requires the integration of brain science, adolescent development research, data, and racial justice advocacy with the legal jurisprudence of criminal law as well as youth rights law. Youth defense necessitates holistic representation and competencies around the various systems that affect a child’s life, from education to mental health. The U.S. Supreme Court demands that every child be equipped with a meaningful and zealous lawyer under the Fourteenth Amendment. To fulfill this constitutional mandate, youth defense must be recognized and upheld as a specialized area of law by all stakeholders in juvenile court.

Justice sign on a Law Courts building.  New high resolution version shown below:

What You Need To Know

Youth Defense Standards

The Gault Center developed national standards for the practice of youth defense to serve as a model for stakeholders to implement at the state level to ensure that all children are receiving competent, ethical, and zealous advocacy, as required by the U.S. Constitution. The standards set a framework for representation that is anchored in the law, science, and professional codes of responsibility. They call for the early and timely appointment of counsel that extends throughout the duration of the court process, including post-dispositional and appellate representation. The standards also acknowledge the important and vital role that youth defenders must play in the discourse on public policy and youth justice reform.

DOJ Statement of Interest

The Department of Justice issued a Statement of Interest in a civil lawsuit, N.P. v. Georgia, and asserted the critical importance of children having access to qualified counsel. The DOJ reasoned, “Indeed, the unique qualities of youth demand special training, experience and skill for their advocates.” Accordingly, the DOJ called for systems to provide youth defenders with sufficient time and resources, adequate training, and specialization in defending children to fulfill the constitutional mandate of providing competent and zealous representation.

Our Current Efforts

State Reform

The Gault Center has worked with several jurisdictions to effectuate youth specific practice standards and remains committed to providing technical assistance and strategic advice for jurisdictions that are looking to draft and implement state-based youth defense standards. To date, over 20 jurisdictions have some level of professional standards specific to defense attorneys representing youth.


Training is the cornerstone of ensuring that young people facing juvenile court will be equipped with a competent and zealous advocate to effectively defend their case. As an effort to build a corps of specialized youth defenders across the country, the Gault Center organizes and delivers training sessions on a wide range of topics, including racial justice, detention advocacy, and adolescent development. The Gault Center also provides training for multi-stakeholder groups, including judges, court personnel, probation officers, and others to raise awareness around issues that implicate children’s rights.