The Youth Court primarily deals with offending by young people aged 14-17 years, except for some serious offending by 17 year olds which is transferred automatically to the District Court. In certain circumstances the Youth Court also deals with serious offending by children aged 12-13 years.
The Youth Court is not just the District Court for young people. It has all the hallmarks of a solution-focused court, centred on rehabilitation, wrap-around support, addressing the underlying causes of offending, and diversion away from court. A team of dedicated specialists assist young people to actively engage and participate in proceedings.
"The Youth Court is not just the District Court for young people. It has all the hallmarks of a solution-focused court… "
Only 20–30 per cent of police apprehensions come before the Youth Court. This allows judges to focus on cases involving serious offending by young people with complex needs.
Young offenders have often been exposed to trauma, abuse and family violence. They may be dislocated from their culture or schooling and increasingly suffer from mental illness. Neurodisabilities such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, autism and dyslexia are also common.
A unique feature of the Youth Court process is the Family Group Conference (FGC), which involves a gathering of the young person, their family, any victims, Police Youth Aid, the young person’s Youth Advocate (lawyer) and other professionals. The parties establish a plan to address the offending and underlying causes, provide for any victims’ interests and help the young person to take responsibility for their actions.
Not all Youth Court proceedings occur in a traditional courtroom. Ngā Kōti Rangatahi (Rangatahi Courts) and Pasifika Courts occur at a marae or a Pasifika hall. Māori or Pacific languages, custom and cultural practices are used as part of the court process. There are 15 Rangatahi Courts nationwide and two Pasifika Courts. A sixteenth Rangatahi Court was due to open in Hawke’s Bay in late 2020.
These courts were established to address the over-representation of Māori and Pasifika in the youth justice system. This has had visible positive effects. The number of Māori children and young people in court is decreasing, and at a faster rate than other ethnicities.