Children’s courts: when we fail the next generation

Posted on January 22, 2013

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Children’s courts are often overcrowded, tense, chaotic and unsafe

At a time of community concern about knife crime and street violence, a ground-breaking study has concluded that failure to invest adequately in our children’s courts and youth justice and child protection systems will have major long-term detrimental consequences for Australia.

Led by La Trobe University Professor of Social Work and Social Policy, Allan Borowski, with Monash University’s Associate Professor Rosemary Sheehan, the authors say their three-year ‘national assessment’ of children’s courts is the first study of its type in Australia. In terms of its scope and issues examined, it is also without precedent anywhere in the world.

Professor Borowski says the study involved eight sub-studies – one for each state and territory.  It canvassed the views of judicial officers, youth justice and child protection workers, lawyers, prosecutors and other key stakeholders across Australia. It could not interview court clients due to the complex challenges in obtaining additional ethics committee approvals.

Since its publication there has been extensive media coverage of the study.  Professor Borowski has been flooded with emails and calls from courts, departments of attorney-general and justice, child and youth advocacy organisations and legal aid services from across Australia.

Effectively unworkable in some jurisdictions

Children’s courts, says Professor Borowski, decide extremely important legal and social issues relating to children and families. They deal with criminal and child protection matters but are under-resourced to cope with growing and increasingly complex workloads which often also include drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, cognitive and mental health issues.

The study found that the courts, which usually do their work away from public and media scrutiny, operate within a broader justice system and, in some jurisdictions, have become ‘effectively unworkable’.

Professor Borowski: in bureaucratic competition for resources, our children’s courts have not fared well

Australia’s children’s courts finalise almost 67,000 criminal and 21,000 child welfare matters annually. His study found that there are insufficient specialist magistrates to hear cases. Respondents described court facilities as often ‘overcrowded, tense, chaotic and unsafe without adequate security’.

Significantly, the study noted the large number of children and young people who appear on both criminal and child protection matters. ‘Many young people appearing on criminal matters are child protection “graduates” of the court,’ the report says.

The findings also highlight many discrepancies between the operation of courts in different states and between city and rural areas, and call for the greater use of Indigenous children’s sentencing courts and ‘sentencing circles’. For example, in Western Australia young Aboriginal people are disproportionately denied bail.

With long-standing research expertise in juvenile crime, justice and corrections, Professor Borowski has also carried out extensive research relating to Indigenous courts, including an evaluation of the Children’s Koori Court of Victoria.

Under-investment in our greatest asset

The study’s findings also highlight the need for more professional development for members of the courtroom workgroup, greater clarity about the role of lawyers, additional legal aid to ensure equitable representation, improved court facilities including holding areas, bail support programs, and consideration of increasing the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years.

Professor Borowski says ‘children’s courts are vital for holding young offenders accountable for their behaviour, for helping rehabilitate them and protecting the community as well as protecting children from harm and advancing their best interests.

‘In the bureaucratic competition for resources, our children’s courts and youth justice and child welfare systems have not fared well,’ he concludes.

‘This is an under-investment in society’s greatest asset – namely its children and young people. Their well-being is certainly of vital interest to them.  But it is also of great importance to the welfare of society as a whole.’ – Ernest Raetz

Whither Australia’s Children’s Courts? Findings of the National Assessment of Australia’s Children’ Courts will soon be published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of CriminologyFurther inquiries to: A.Borowski@latrobe.edu.au