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How to: Family group conferences dealing with young offenders

Introduction

Youth justice is a special division of the law dealing with offending by children up to age 13 and young people aged 14 to 16. When young people break the law the aim is to deal with the offending without convictions and thereby avoid young people having criminal records.

The family group conference is an important mechanism in the youth justice system, aimed at encouraging family and whanau to take responsibility for dealing with the child or young person's offending. The focus of youth justice is on putting right the offence as opposed to punishing the young offender.

When is a family group conference held?

Family group conferences are held in the following situations:

  • When a child aged 10 to 13 has been involved in offending that makes the Police concerned for his or her welfare and the Police believe that care and protection proceedings should be brought in the Family Court, a conference must be held.
  • When the Police allege that a young person (that is, someone aged 14 to 16) has committed an offence and the Police wish (after consulting with the Youth Justice Co-ordinator) that the young person be charged, a conference must be held.
  • When a young offender has been arrested and appears in the Youth Court, the judge directs a family group conference to be held if the young person does not deny the charge.
  • If a young offender appearing in the Youth Court does deny the charge, the case will proceed to a defended court hearing, and if the judge makes an order for the detention of the offender in the meantime, a family group conference must be held.
  • If the charge is proved at a defended hearing and a conference has not considered how the offender should be dealt with, a conference must then be held.

Who arranges the family group conference?

The conference is arranged by a Youth Justice Co-ordinator from the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services (DCYFS).

The Youth Justice Co-ordinator must consult with the young offender's family or whanau about the time and place for the conference, about who should attend, and about the procedure for the conference.

Who attends the conference?

The young offender and his or her family will attend, along with the Youth Justice Co-ordinator and a representative from the Police (usually a Youth Aid Police officer).

A number of other people may also attend, including:

  • the victim of the offence (the victim may also bring a support person)
  • a social worker from the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services (in certain cases)
  • the offender's lawyer or (if he or she does not have a lawyer) a Youth Advocate appointed by the court

What happens at the conference?

The conference will begin with the different parties being introduced and with the facts of the offence being explained to everyone present.

Discussion will then take place between the family, the various authorities and the victim (if he or she is present).

The conference will then attempt to reach a decision, and from that a recommendation will be made as to how to deal with the child or young person's offending. This might include: an apology, reparation to the victim, replacement of stolen property, a curfew, a formal Police caution, care and protection proceedings being taken in the Family Court, and, at worst, a prosecution in the Youth Court.

The conference will usually last two to four hours, but the family may take as long as it needs to reach an agreement.

The conference is closed to the public and all discussions there are confidential.

What happens to decisions reached at the conference?

The authorities, such as the Police and the DCYFS, have the right to disagree with plans proposed at a family group conference. If no decision is reached then the case will be referred to the court.

If agreement is reached at the conference it is legally binding and cannot be changed except by another conference.

Cautionary notes
  • If the young person is to be prosecuted in the Youth Court, he or she will need a lawyer. If the young person does not have a lawyer, one will be appointed by the court (a Youth Advocate), at no cost to the young person or his or her family. Lawyers and Youth Advocates are permitted to attend family group conferences.

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