The Children’s Court (NSW)
In New South Wales, the Children’s Court deals with defendants who are alleged to have committed a crime while under the age of 18. The way young people are dealt with by the courts is different in some respects from the way courts deal with adults. The criminal division of the Children’s Court deals with criminal matters including traffic offences, summary offences, bail applications, pleas and contested hearings. The NSW Children’s Court also hears domestic violence matters involving juveniles, care and protection matters and compulsory schooling matters. This article outlines how the criminal division of the Children’s Court works.
When children are sentenced for criminal matters, the court gives greater importance to rehabilitating the offender that it does when dealing with an adult. This is because the justice system recognises that young people make mistakes and should be given the opportunity to learn from those mistakes. However, in cases where other sentencing considerations are considered more important than rehabilitation, such as where the offence is very serious or the offender has been in trouble a number of times before, the Children’s Court can hand down serious penalties including periods in youth detention.
Children’s Court Legislation
The Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987(NSW) governs the criminal process in the Children’s Court. This Act sets out some principles that the Children’s Court must consider when dealing with young people who are charged with a crime. These principles include:
- children have a right to be heard and a right to participate in the processes that lead to decisions that affect them;
- children are responsible for their actions but require guidance and assistance because of their immaturity;
- it is desirable, wherever possible, to allow the education or employment of a child to continue;
- it is desirable, wherever possible, to allow a child to reside in his or her own home;
- penalties imposed on children should be no greater than those imposed on an adult who commits the same type of offence;
- it is desirable that children maintain family and community ties;
- it is desirable that children who commit offences accept responsibility and make amends for their actions; and
- appropriate consideration should be given to the impact of any crime on the victim.
Unlike the adult criminal courts, the Children’s Court is closed to the general public. The Magistrate can also make the decision to exclude those that are not directly involved with the case when hearing an individual matter.
The proceedings in the Children’s Court are conducted with less formality than the adult courts.
Criminal process in the Children’s Court
A court attendance notice is filed by the police at the children’s court once a child has been charged with a criminal offence. If the young person was placed on bail, they will be required to attend court on the date stated on the court attendance notice, usually a few weeks after the charges are laid. If the young person was remanded by the police, the matter will be brought before a court as soon as possible. They will then have the opportunity to apply for bail or to plead guilty and finalise the charges on the spot.
If a plea of not guilty is entered, the matter will be adjourned for the police to prepare and serve what is called a ‘brief of evidence’. If the young person maintains his or her plea of not guilty after seeing the brief of evidence, the court will adjourn the matter for a defended hearing.
If the young person is found not guilty at the hearing the charges will be dismissed. If the young person is found guilty at the hearing, they will be sentenced by the Magistrate. In some cases, the Children’s Court may adjourn a matter to obtain reports or to have the defendant assessed for various programs prior to deciding on the appropriate sentence.
If a child or young person is found guilty the Children’s Court must decide what sentence to impose. There is a wide range of penalties the court can impose depending on the seriousness of the offence and the circumstances of the child or young person, including any previous criminal record they have.
A young person can be sentenced to the following orders by the Children’s Court:
- dismissal with or without a caution
- good behaviour bond
- probation order
- community services order; and
- control order (which may be suspended) placing the child or young person in detention.
The Children’s Court has jurisdiction to deal with traffic offences where the defendant is below licensable age, or where it is dealing with other related criminal offences. All other traffic offences alleged to have been committed by persons under the age of 18 are dealt with by the Local Court.
Serious criminal offences
Strict indictable offences and offences that are being dealt with on indictment cannot be finalised in the Children’s Court. When a matter is being dealt with on indictment, the Children’s Court will conduct a committal proceeding where it will consider the evidence available and will refer the matter to the District Court, or in some cases, the Supreme Court, if satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding of guilt.
A young person who is tried and/or sentenced by the Children’s Court can appeal against the verdict or the sentence or both to the District Court. An appeal must be initiated within 28 days of the order being made.
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