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Young people and the youth justice system
Young people and the youth justice system

Young people and the youth justice system

Each state and territory has laws and policies relating to children and how they are dealt with by the police, when suspected of committing an offence and when they are required to appear in court. Due to their age, children are not dealt with in the adult justice system. The terms “juvenile justice” and “youth justice” have the same meaning and might be used in different states or territories.

The youth justice system involves a number of agencies and processes including

  • police
  • the courts
  • government agencies (including detention facilities)
  • community agencies and services

Who do Youth Justice laws apply to?

Youth justice laws apply to children who are aged 10–17 years when they commit an offence. An exception to this is in Queensland, where youth justice laws apply to children aged 10–16 years when they commit an offence.

In all states and territories of Australia, a child aged under 10 years cannot be held criminally responsible. This means that they cannot be charged with an offence under the law.

What happens when a child is apprehended by the Police?

The process followed by police may include

  • Police must notify a parent or other adult after charging or detaining a child
  • If police question a child, the presence of a parent, guardian, or solicitor is required (talk to your care team about who is the most appropriate person to do this)
  • Police may decide to formally caution the child, making a separate time for them to come back to the police station
  • Police may give the child some kind of notice requiring them to appear in court
  • Police may issue a summons to the child, which directs them to appear in court at a particular place and time
  • If a child is arrested, the police will generally decide whether to release them on bail until their court appearance
  • If police refuse to grant bail, the child will be held in custody until their court appearance, either in a police watch house or holding cell, or in a youth detention facility


Diversion refers to actions that may be taken by police or the courts to steer a child away from deeper involvement in the youth justice system. For example

  • police may caution a child for an offence instead of taking them to court
  • police may refer a child to a conference instead of charging them and taking the matter to court
  • police may refer a child to a drug diversion program in some circumstances

If a caution is administered by police this is the end of the matter and the child does not have to appear in court.

Conferences have different titles depending on the state/territory (e.g. Youth Justice Conference). Generally, they involve both the victim of the offence as well as the child, with a representative from the relevant department. The victim and child may also be permitted to have a support person present.

The aim of a conference is usually to develop an agreement which all parties in the conference are happy with. For example, as a result of a conference a child may agree to write a letter of apology to the victim or do some work for the victim or an organisation.

Court appearance

Appearing in court is a stressful experience for anyone, especially if the child has not been to court before. Talk to your care team about supporting a child in your care to attend court.

Some general points in relation to Children’s Courts include

In most states/territories, Children’s Courts are closed (they are not open to the public), but in others are open, unless the court orders otherwise.

A free duty lawyer service is usually available at court. The lawyer will want to speak to the child prior to court.

A representative from the juvenile justice state or territory agency will usually be present at court and may also wish to speak with the child before court.

Certain standards of dress and etiquette will apply at court.

The people who are usually present in court are the Magistrate (or Judge if the matter is before a higher court), the police prosecutor, the lawyer, and the juvenile justice officer.

How courts may deal with charges against a child in the early stages include

Charges may be dealt with by the court on the first appearance date, however the charges will often be adjourned (held over) to a later court date.

Until the next court appearance, the court may release the child back into the community, perhaps on bail. Bail may or may not include some kind of supervision or involvement by the youth justice agency or the police. A court may place a child on bail with some kind of conditions until they next appear in court.

Where the charges are particularly serious the court may remand the child in custody, which means they will be held in a youth/juvenile detention centre until they next appear in court. More serious charges may eventually be committed to a higher court for hearing.

Helping children at risk of offending

If you are concerned that a child is at risk of getting into trouble with the law it is best to deal with this early and in a considered and calm way. Never accuse a child of having done something if you don’t have enough information to support your concerns.

These are basic to any good caring situation and can help children at risk of breaking the law

  • aim to provide a supportive environment where the child can openly talk to you about concerns
  • support the child to develop healthy relationships with their peers
  • be clear about acceptable behaviours and responsibilities
  • be involved in the child’s interests or activities, including shared and enjoyable family activities
  • support the child to get involved in positive activities in the community, e.g. sports, a hobby or interest of theirs
  • encourage regular attendance at school (children who develop a pattern of truancy are more likely to become involved in offending behaviour)

The more children have positive experiences in their day to day lives such as in the family environment, at school, playing sports or other activities, or perhaps in some wider involvement in the community, they will be less likely to seek out negative and destructive influences or involvement elsewhere.

Importance of Good Communication

If a child you are caring for does break the law and has contact with the police or the courts

  • listen – it is always helpful to a child to feel they are being listened to
  • talk about experiences – don’t interrogate or question the child about something they have done or are suspected of - this is not your role
  • help children deal with what is happening to them, e.g. their reaction to police contact, anxieties about court, anxieties about what might happen to them

Getting Help

Always talk to your care team for more information or support, and keep them informed of any contact children have with the police and youth justice system.

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