Taking lessons from the Rangatahi Courts

[Note: This article first appeared in the Auckland District Law Society publication LawNews at (2018) 3 LawNews 1]

The latest Kōti Rangatahi, Rangatahi Court — the country’s 15th — is about to open in Whangārei.

In this article, Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker examines the special contribution of Rangatahi Courts to youth justice and their further potential.

New Zealand’s Youth Court has long been recognised for its pioneering approach to restoring the prospects of young offenders and diverting them from starting down a life-long path of crime.

Image of Rangatahi Court.

Judge Louis Bidois and Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker (centre back), alongside kaumatua and kuia at Mātaatua Rangatahi Court, where a whāriki (woven mat) represents the victim at the front of the Court.

We do not rest on our laurels at the Youth Court. This culture of innovation requires constant nurture, in large part through a quest for knowledge about the underlying drivers of offending. It also requires close attention to what communities are telling us and how they can contribute to restoring young lives.

It is not altogether surprising that Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts emerged in this inclusive, inquisitive environment. These Courts bring together the purpose and values that come from cultural awareness, the strength of community insight and wisdom, and the enveloping support of state agencies, specialist services and court professionals working collaboratively.

It has been ten years since Judge Heemi Taumaunu set up the first Rangatahi Court in Gisborne. Next week (on Saturday 24 February 2018), the 15th Rangatahi Court will open on Terenga Parāoa Marae in Whangārei.

Whangārei Judge Greg Davis and Hamilton-based Judge Denise Clark have led development of the Whangārei Court. For the first few months, Judge Clark (Ngāpuhi), who has developed Rangatahi Courts in Hamilton and Huntly, will be the presiding judge. Judge Greg Davis (Ngāpuhi) will take over later in the year.

Although Rangatahi and Pasifika Courts are a judge-led initiative, they are not imposed on communities. When considering whether to open a Court, as Youth Court judges, we take our lead from how much local iwi or Pasifika communities wish to be actively involved in what remains essentially a criminal court process.

Rangatahi Courts offer young people who have admitted to their offending (or have had charges they face proved) the choice of having their Family Group Conference plans monitored in a culturally-adapted setting.

They are designed to re-engage young people with their culture, in order to provide a better platform for the delivery of effective interventions.

We have found that a young person who has become disconnected from his or her culture, and has no sense of place or belonging, can be resistant to interventions that deal with underlying causes of offending – be they drug or alcohol addictions, family abuse and breakdown, traumatic brain injuries or learning disabilities and other neuro-disabilities.

The emphasis on tikanga in a Rangatahi Court creates a feeling of inclusiveness and belonging for marginalised young Māori. This culture is evident from the outset. Marae protocol sees court professionals, the offender, his or her whanau and the judge all greeted and brought on to the marae together. At the end of the formal pōwhiri, everyone shares food before the Court sitting starts.

Although the Courts sit on a marae or in another community setting, they are not separate courts. They are always preceded by an appearance at a conventional Youth Court, and are effectively a parallel monitoring and sentencing process held at a different venue.

It is no soft option. As lawyers involved in youth justice will know, Youth Advocates, Police prosecutors and Oranga Tamariki, and others who form the courts’ multi-disciplinary teams, remain very much part of the process, and the normal principles of natural justice apply.

A great deal is expected of the young people, especially from their elders. Kaumatua and kuia, lay advocates and mentors play a key role in guiding them toward gaining the cultural knowledge which they are expected to demonstrate to the Court. Together, in collaboration with court professionals and under the leadership of the judge, the elders hold their rangatahi to account.

For me, the paramount measure of success is the contribution that culturally-adapted courts make to improving access to justice. Ultimately, I believe their real power lies in their potential to influence and improve how all courts work and interact with the communities they serve.

Image of Principal Youth Court Judge, Judge John Walker.

Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker

The Courts also strive to be victim-focused. At Whakatāne’s Mātaatua Rangatahi Court, the local iwi have woven a whāriki (mat) to represent the victim, and it is draped over a table in front of the judge. One of the most moving hearings I have presided at was when a young offender held on to the cloth as he gave an emotional karakia and apology.

The opening of Whangārei’s Rangatahi Court raises questions about what is next for Rangatahi Courts. While some people will try to measure the Courts’ success in terms of recidivism rates, these are notoriously difficult to determine, given the Courts’ short history and relatively small number of offenders involved.

Nevertheless, you would reasonably expect that if you deal with the underlying causes of offending effectively — and Rangatahi Courts are a good setting in which to do this — you will reduce a person’s level of offending.

For me, the paramount measure of success is the contribution that culturally-adapted courts make to improving access to justice.

Māori feature disproportionately in all our social indicators, particularly in the criminal justice system. In Northland alone, 80% of the young people who appear in Youth Court are Māori. Developing a culturally-adaptable system in settings to which individuals can relate and connect, and feel comfortable in, is the right thing to do.

However, it is not feasible for every centre to have a Rangatahi Court. There are not always enough offenders, and interest from the community may not have emerged. The Courts can place big demands on marae resources, and some iwi and hapu may be uneasy about having a Court sitting on their marae.

These Courts certainly stretch our constrained judicial resource, particularly among our tangata whenua and Pasifika judges, and they require detailed consultation and planning and enormous community goodwill. Ultimately, I believe their real power lies in their potential to influence and improve how all courts work and interact with the communities they serve.

We are not serving the public if people think the Courts are not in tune with their daily lives and struggles. It is important that the Youth Court learns lessons from its Rangatahi Courts. The normal court environment can be intimidating for anyone who appears, and creating an environment where everyone feels able to participate is essential for the fair delivery of justice.

Youth Court judges want to see how we can mainstream the features and attributes of the Rangatahi Court into the Youth Court. Where appropriate, and where the iwi want it and there are the numbers to justify it, Youth Court judges will always consider using Rangatahi Court practices, without limiting them to a marae setting.

In all this, Youth Advocates remain integral to the Youth Court and the ethos enshrined in its 1989 founding legislation. I see them continuing to advocate for young people to ensure their rights are not overlooked, in whatever venue the Youth Court is sitting.

While always cognisant of that role, their value is strengthened by being part of a wider team which aims to achieve the best outcome for their young people, which is to divert and rehabilitate them from the destructive path they were on.