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How to - Young people in the New Zealand criminal-justice system


If your child is under 17 and gets into trouble with the Police, he or she will be dealt with under the youth justice provisions of the CHILDREN, YOUNG PERSONS, AND THEIR FAMILIES ACT 1989. The system emphasises keeping children out of the justice system and having problems dealt with as much as possible by the family group. The family group conference plays an important role in this process.

At what age can a child or young person be charged with a criminal offence?

Children under 10 cannot be charged with criminal offences.

A child who is 10 or over but under 14 can be charged with murder or manslaughter and with more minor traffic offences, but otherwise cannot be charged. A family group conference can, however, be called to deal with the child's offending (see below), and an application can be made to the Family Court to deal with the child on the basis that he or she is in need of care and protection.

Young people who are 14 or over but under 17 can be charged and sentenced, but the proceedings are dealt with in the Youth Court. Young people who are 17 or over are dealt with in the ordinary courts as adults.

What happens when the Police get involved?

If a person under 17 is suspected of having committed a crime, the Police have several options:

Young people have special protections when they are being questioned by the Police, whether before or after arrest.

What happens if the Police charge the young person?

If a young person is arrested and charged, he or she will appear before the Youth Court. Proceedings in the Youth Court are completely closed to the public. If the young person does not have a lawyer the court will appoint a Youth Advocate to represent him or her. The young person will either be remanded in custody or allowed out on bail.

If a young person does not deny the offending, a family group conference will be held. If the charges are denied, there will eventually be a defended Youth Court hearing; a family group conference may also be held in some cases.

What is a family group conference and what can it do?

Family group conferences are convened by a Youth Justice Co-ordinator. They are closed to the public. The Co-ordinator will notify a variety of people to attend the conference, usually the young person, parents, caregivers, whanau, a Police officer, a lawyer or Youth Advocate, a social worker, and the victim.

The role of the family group conference is to make decisions and formulate plans for the young person's welfare. These can be enforced and reviewed. The focus is on the family unit accepting responsibility in dealing with the young person's offending.

The family group conference may, among other things, recommend that Youth Court proceedings be continued or discontinued, that care and protection proceedings be taken in the Family Court, or that the Police give a formal caution. If the young person has damaged property, the conference may recommend that he or she pay reparation to the victim. The conference may also recommend other penalties to the Youth Court.

Sentencing in the Youth Court

If the young person does face Youth Court proceedings and is sentenced, it is unlikely that he or she will be imprisoned unless it is a very serious offence. The judge is likely to release the offender but impose conditions, such as a restriction on whom the young person may associate with and a curfew, so that it will always be known where the young person is.

Cautionary notes

  • The Police may decide to take no action at all if the offence is relatively minor and they believe that repeat offending is unlikely.
  • They may decide to issue a warning, in which case the Youth Aid section of the Police will write to the young person's parents or caregivers.
  • A more serious step is a formal Police caution. This will happen if the young person admits the offence or if it has been proved, and a family group conference (see below) recommends that a caution be given. The caution is usually given at a Police Station, and by a senior Police officer, with parents or caregivers present.
  • The young person may be arrested and charged. If the young person hasn't been arrested, the Police can't lay charges unless a family group conference has been held, the Police have consulted the Youth Justice Co-ordinator, and the public interest justifies laying charges.
    • It is essential in a stressful situation such as this that you get a lawyer who will focus on the legal process so that you can concentrate on the welfare of your son or daughter. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the Youth Court will appoint a Youth Advocate to represent him or her.

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