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.
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.