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Referral Orders

When a young person pleads guilty at court to their first criminal offence, the usual outcome is a Referral Order. There are two exceptions:

  • if the court feels able to deal with the offence by an absolute discharge
  • or if the court decides that the offence was so serious that only a custodial sentence is appropriate


Length A Referral Order can be between three and twelve months long. The court will set the length of the order, based on their assessment of the offence.

How it works

A Youth Justice Officer from Dorset Combined Youth Justice Service (DCYJS) will be allocated to the young person. The YJS Officer will visit the young person, and their carers, soon after the court date to complete an assessment. The aim of the assessment is to work out the reasons for the offence, any issues that might need work to reduce the risk of re-offending, and the young person’s strengths and goals. The YJS Officer will also talk to other professionals who may know the young person to ensure an accurate assessment. The officer will then produce a written report for the initial panel meeting.

The panel

The YJS runs a group of community volunteers, known as panel members. For each referral order, two panel members are allocated. Within 20 days of the court appearance, there must be an initial panel meeting. This is attended by the offender and their carer, the YJS Officer, and the two panel members. The aim of the meeting is to establish what happened, the reasons for it, and to agree a 'contract' of what work the young person will do during the Referral Order.

The duration of the order begins when the contract is agreed.

The contract

The contract is an agreement between the panel members and the offender about what work will be done during the order.

The contract must include some work to reduce the risk of re-offending and an activity to repair the harm they have caused (sometimes called reparation). It is also important to help the child build on their strengths and interests with positive activities.

Progress meetings

Progress meetings take place at least every three months, so that the panel members can meet again with the offender their carer and their YJS Officer, to review the progress on completing the contract. There is a final meeting at the end of the order to confirm that the young person has completed the contract successfully.

Non compliance

The YJS is responsible to the Court for ensuring that the court order is carried out. The young person is required to keep all appointments and follow behaviour rules during appointments. Failure to comply, without an acceptable reason, can lead to the panel being re-convened.

The panel members then need to decide if the young person should be allowed to continue with the order or returned to court for the breach. If the young person is taken back to court for breach, the court may decide to revoke the order and re-sentence the young person.

Involving the victim

Involving the victim of the offence is an important part of Referral Orders as part of an approach known as Restorative Justice. The guiding principle is that the victim has the choice about whether to be involved, or how much to be involved. The YJS has a separate worker - the Restorative Justice Practitioner - who contacts the victim.

Activities could include some or all of the following:

  • the young person may be asked to explain how they came to commit the offence, sometimes in the form of a letter to the victim
  • the young person may be required to do unpaid work, either for the benefit of the victim (direct reparation) or for the benefit of the community (indirect reparation).
  • the Restorative Justice Practitioner may voice the victim's views at a panel meeting, or at a separate meeting with the young person
  • the victim may attend a meeting with the young person, either with the panel members or separately. Such a meeting would be facilitated by the Restorative Justice Practitioner and would be carefully managed to ensure it is a positive experience for both parties

Specialist workers

Other YJS workers may also meet with the offender. The YJS has different types of workers in to meet multiple needs for each young offender, including social workers, health workers, a psychologist, speech and language therapists, a police officer, a probation officer, and an education officer.

For example, if the young person's offence linked to drug or alcohol use, they may be asked to meet the YJS' health workers. If their attendance at school is an issue, then the YJS' education officer may become involved.

Parent support

The parents of the young person are very important to the whole process. The YJS Officer often seeks to meet the young person at home, and to make a positive working relationship with the parent or carers. For some parents it is helpful to have a separate contact in the YJS who can support them with their efforts to look after the young offender. The YJS has parenting workers who can undertake this work.

Criminal record

Avoiding a criminal record is a big concern for many young people and parents. If the young person completes the referral order successfully, then the conviction is deemed to be 'spent' as soon as the order ends. This means that the young person would not need to declare the conviction for most positions.

For some jobs, a full criminal record check will be required, in which case the conviction would still need to be disclosed. The YJS can provide more advice, based on the individual circumstances of the young person.


If the young person goes to court for a separate offence during the referral order, the court has the option of extending the order. This can only happen once, and the total length of the order cannot exceed 12 months.

If the young person re-offends after the referral order, then the court will choose from a range of different sentences. In some circumstances, the court could consider making a second referral order.

Contact details

Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole

Dorset Combined Youth Justice Service,
Ted Webster Centre,
519A Ashley Rd,
BH14 0BD.

Call: 01202 794 321.

Dorset Council

Dorset Combined Youth Justice Service,
Monkton Park,
DT2 9PS.

Call: 0300 123 3339.


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