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Report of the Principal Youth Court Judge

REPORT OF

THE PRINCIPAL YOUTH COURT JUDGE, JUDGE JOHN WALKER

— Rights of the vulnerable upheld during a time of crisis

The work of the Youth Court in 2019/2020 has been coloured, unsurprisingly, by the effects of COVID-19, which continue to be felt across the entire country.

As we move closer towards a state of normality it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the lessons we have learnt over recent months and how to harness the positives which have come out of this difficult time.

Image of Judge John Walker - head and shoulders.

In times of crisis such as these, extra vigilance is required to uphold the rights and interests of the young and vulnerable. It is crucial that we remain alert to the dangers of the vulnerable being overlooked. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable and have special needs and rights that must be protected.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) remains a beacon of hope in dark times. One of the many legislative changes to the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 that came into force in 2019 was an additional principle that children’s and young people’s rights, including those rights set out in CRC, must be respected and upheld.

The evolving pandemic situation risked infringing or diluting some of these rights. The Youth Court actively took measures to avoid this by emphasising the importance of diversion, custody as a last resort, looking for options within the community, having support people in court and dealing with matters in a timeframe appropriate to the age and development of the young person.

"The evolving pandemic situation risked infringing or diluting some of these rights. The Youth Court actively took measures to avoid this … ."

One of the guiding principles in youth justice is that custody is the last resort for children and young people. The importance of this principle was highlighted during the pandemic response. We saw an impressive effort from agencies working together to explore other options to custody, through extensive use of the Remand Options Investigation Tool (ROIT). By looking for options, and looking for options again, alternatives to custody and innovative solutions were found.

"One of the guiding principles in youth justice is that custody is the last resort for children and young people. The importance of this principle was highlighted during the pandemic response."

This is just one example of the way that the Youth Court operated at the height of the COVID-19 response period, which was reflective of the collegial interagency nature of youth justice operations. Having already established this collaborative approach was key as it allowed us to immediately tap into the existing framework. Any unexpected issues that arose were readily dealt with by judges, Oranga Tamariki, Police Youth Aid, the Ministry of Justice and other agencies.

It is clear that there are many lessons which we can take from the Youth Court’s response to COVID-19. Finding inventive solutions, working together as a team and upholding children’s and young people’s rights must continue to be done even when the time of crisis has passed.

Image of Judge John Walker standing behind a podium.

Judge Walker addresses the Youth Court Triennial Conference at Ōrākei Marae in July 2019.