For the purpose of criminal law a child is anyone under 18 years of age. Children who have not reached the age of 12 years cannot be charged with an offence, with the exception of children aged 10 or 11 who may be charged with certain serious offences. During the court proceedings of a child charged with an offence, the court may order that a family conference be held.
A family conference is a meeting involving the child charged with the offence, members of the child’s family, the victim(s) and other relevant people. At the meeting, the offence is discussed with regard to its effect on the victim, the community and on the child’s family. It aims to come up with a plan which will help the child to avoid getting into trouble in the future.
The hearings for all minor offences are held in the Children Court, as are most serious (indictable) offences. The court may, during the child’s court proceedings, direct that a family conference be convened. The Children Acts 2001–2015 make provision for the court to ask the Probation Service to convene such a family conference. The court then adjourns the court proceedings until after the conference is held. The court may direct the conference to consider certain matters relating to the child.
The Court orders a family conference when:
- The child accepts responsibility for his/her criminal behaviour
- The court believes that an action plan should be devised
- The child and the child’s parents or guardians agree to participate in the conference
A probation officer arranges the family conference within 28 days of being requested to do so by the court. The child and the child’s family attend the meeting. The victim may attend. Other relevant people may also attend, such as a teacher or social worker.
At the meeting the child’s offence is discussed with regard to its effect on the victim, the community and on the child’s family. It looks at ways that the child can take responsibility for his/her behaviour and make good the harm done. It is based on the principles of restorative justice.
At some stage during the meeting, the child and his/her family meet privately to draft an action plan that is designed to make amends and to help the child stay out of trouble. The draft action plan is then discussed by the full group at the meeting and agreed.
The agreed action plan is submitted to court for approval. If the court approves the plan it is overseen by the child’s family, other identified individuals and it is supervised by the probation officer.
When the action plan has been completed, the case is returned to court for a final decision. If the action plan is not completed the court can deal with the case in some other way, for example detention or community sanctions.
Further information is available on the Probation Service website.