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Youth Court

The Youth Court is a division of the District Court and is overseen by the Principal Youth Court Judge. Fifty-four District Court judges are designated Youth Court judges.

The Youth Court deals with offending by young people aged 14–16 years and in certain serious circumstances with offending by children aged 12–13 years. From July 2019, the jurisdiction of the Youth Court will be extended to include offending by 17-year-olds (except for some serious offending, which will still be transferred automatically to the District Court or High Court).

This is an important development for youth justice, which reflects the understanding that young people are still learning and developing, and should be treated in a manner distinguished from that of the adult population. It also aligns New Zealand with international standards.

The central difference in the youth justice system from adult courts is a focus on police diversion. Only 20%–30% of police apprehensions come to the Youth Court. This allows the Court to devote its time to addressing the most serious offending by our young people, who often have grown up exposed to a number of complex contributing factors.

The Family Group Conference (FGC) is an important feature of the Youth Court process. Following a young person’s first appearance (unless the young person denies the offending and there is a defended trial), the FGC enables the young person, their family, any victims, Police Youth Aid, the young person’s Youth Advocate (lawyer), and other professionals such as social workers or service providers to come together.

Image from the outside of a Youth Court room.

The parties at the conference will try to establish a plan to both address the offending, understand its underlying causes, provide for victims’ interests and help the young person to take responsibility for their actions.

Once the FGC has concluded, the plan will be put to the Youth Court judge for approval. Often the young person is required to return to court for regular monitoring of the plan. The monitoring feature is important for ensuring the plan remains on track. The role of the judge in this also provides the young person with a consistent authority figure to whom they are accountable.

Since 2008, 15 Rangatahi Courts have been developed to provide the option of Youth Court monitoring in a kaupapa Māori context. The most recent Rangatahi Court opened in February in Whangārei. Marae protocols are followed and the young person is required to deliver a pepeha, introducing their identity and heritage.

“The central difference in the youth justice system from adult courts is a focus on police diversion. Only 20%-30% of police apprehensions come to the Youth Court”

Rangatahi Courts are a response to the over-representation of Māori in the youth justice system, and aim to reconnect young Māori with their whakapapa (heritage) and with positive cultural structures and influences. There are also two Pasifika Courts in Auckland which use Pasifika cultural practices.

In the Youth Court if it is not possible for a FGC to agree on a plan, where there is non-compliance with a plan or the offending is particularly serious, the court may elect to impose one of a number of orders. These include a custodial sentence in a youth justice residence or conviction and transfer to the District Court. In the District Court the full range of adult sentencing options (including imprisonment) will be available.

While the Youth Court is closed to the public, accredited news media are legally entitled to attend. However, leave must be granted by the court before any report of proceedings can be published. Identifying details of the young person such as their name, school, or parents details can never be published.

Youth Court projects this year

This year marks a time for preparing for changes to the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 which from July 2019 will extend the Youth Court’s jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds.

While this may present some additional pressure in certain areas, the provision of additional judge-days and current capacity in some areas will ensure a smooth transition.

In December, the Principal Youth Court Judge chaired the first multi-agency group meeting responding to the issue of increasingly violent young female offenders. Representatives from Oranga Tamariki, Police, academia, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Women were among those involved. The purpose of this meeting was to bring the matter to the fore and begin discussions on what can be done to better address it.

In May this year, a second meeting was held to consider progress and the perspectives of the respective agencies on the best way forward. The receptiveness of the agencies and their willingness to come together to ensure the best possible outcomes was heartening. It is a continuing issue and important to address.

Publication of the Lay Advocate Handbook involved notification of key changes for existing Lay Advocates, and should greatly assist new Lay Advocates.

This year Oranga Tamariki has been undertaking a “Residence Refresh”, updating and improving the youth justice residential facilities around the country. This has sparked positive change, and staff and residents report having an increased sense of pride in their space. It has been an ongoing challenge for the youth justice sector to ensure sufficient secure custodial options for young people, and the Residence Refresh did challenge this further.

However, with careful management these risks were able to be mitigated. It continues to be a deep concern that young people are held in police cells, and we continue to engage closely with the relevant agencies to address this issue. The wider provision of community-based alternatives to custody will be part of the solution.

The Remand Option Investigation Tool (ROIT) has been piloted in three parts of the country. The ROIT ensures that a range of options for the young person have been considered before appearing in court.

“It continues to be a deep concern that young people are held in police cells, and we continue to engage closely with the relevant agencies to address this issue. The wider provision of community-based alternatives to custody will be part of the solution”

This has resulted in fewer opposed bails and better clarity for the judge. The ROIT now enters a stage of evaluation, and it is hoped it will then be rolled out nationwide.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the first Rangatahi Court at Gisborne. In October, the South Pacific Council of Youth and Children’s Courts Conference took place in Wellington.

As we move into 2019, the Youth Court will continue to strive to be innovative. 2019 promises to be an exciting year, as we embark on projects to benefit all the rangatahi and tamariki who come into conflict with the law. There is much work to be done, but we are confident we can meet the challenge.

Image of the New Christchurch Youth Court.

The new Christchurch Youth Court.

National Statistics

Graph showing Youth Court new business, disposals & active cases from 2013-2018.

  2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018

New Business

3,915 3,931 4,321 4,457 3,653
Disposals 3,969 3,931 4,077 4,421 3,703
Active Cases 1,015 934 1,095 1,039 918

Youth Court statistics are recorded by number of cases rather than young people because each case may involve several charges or young people.

 Comparing the current year to the previous year has seen:

•    New business decrease by 804 cases (-18%)

•    Disposals decrease by 718 cases (-16%)

•    Active cases decrease by 121 cases (-12%)