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From the Law Society

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Enhancing justice in New Zealand

The Youth Court plays an important, potentially determinative, role within our justice system.

As a criminal lawyer of Pacific Island descent, I’m often asked: “how do we change the criminal statistics, particularly when it comes to Māori and Pacific Island offending figures?” A big part of that solution lies with the Youth Court.

Those of us who are criminal lawyers see many of the same people going through the court system like a revolving door. While we are, from time to time, able to assist a person going through the “adult” court to change course, those among us who are youth advocates know it is the Youth Court that offers the most significant and real opportunities to help our young people turn their lives around.

The Youth Court is very effective – from Family Group Conferences, which are achieving some great things; to the dedicated efforts of youth advocates, who also achieve outstanding outcomes; to the work of Youth Court judges, who also work hard to achieve the best for the young people. It is the combination and committed team-work of all participants who bring about positive outcomes for young offenders and, at a wider level, benefit the criminal justice process.

It is now over 25 years since Parliament passed The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, which enshrined new objects and principles for youth justice, and established the Youth Court. That last quarter century has seen the Youth Court mature and grow, providing an increasingly enhanced contribution to youth justice in New Zealand.

Establishing the Youth Court in the first place was a great achievement. However, participants realised that improvements could be made. In January of 2008, the Gisborne Youth Court held a stakeholders’ meeting at which experienced youth justice professionals expressed concern about the fact successive generations of Māori defendants progress from the Youth Court, to the adult court, and in and out of prison. After numerous meetings with local iwi leaders, the Rangatahi Court was introduced. The first marae-based court, Te Kooti Rangatahi, sat in Gisborne in 2008.

Judge Heemi Taumaunu presided. Since then Rangatahi Courts have been launched around the country. The objective of these courts is to reduce reoffending by Māori youth and to provide the best possible rehabilitative response. It seeks to achieve this by encouraging strong cultural links and meaningful involvement of whānau, hapū and iwi in the youth justice process.

Just as Gisborne was the birthplace of this response to enhancing our justice system, I predict that the solution to lowering offending rates may very well come from Gisborne also. Gisborne is already leading the field with the establishment of the Iwi Justice Liaison Panel, the only one of its kind in the country. Established last year, and run by Te Runanga O Ngati Porou, this panel operates a scheme similar to Police diversion, except that it is iwi-run. It is achieving amazing things.

Another area where the Youth Court is currently making significant advances is in helping our young people who have cognitive behavioural issues, including neurological disabilities. The work the Court is doing in this area is another very valuable contribution to our society and an important contribution to enhancing human rights in New Zealand, as is the work of the Court generally.

As the Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft says about the Youth Court: “We are the merchants of hope.” In these challenging times, we need that: hope.

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