When a child is charged with an offence, the court can order that a family conference be held. A family conference is a meeting run by Young Persons Probation. The meeting includes the child charged with the offence, members of the child’s family, the victim(s) and other relevant people. At the meeting, everyone will talk about the offence and its effect on the victim, the community and on the child’s family. The goal is to come up with a plan that will help the child avoid getting into trouble in the future.
The legislation governing family conferences is the Children Act, 2001-2021
Ordering the family conference
When the court (usually the Children Court) orders a family conference to be held the court proceedings are adjourned until the conference is completed.
The Court orders a family conference when:
- The child accepts responsibility for their 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 must arrange the family conference within 28 days of being told 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 group will talk about how the child’s offence affected the victim, the community and the child’s family. Then the group will think of ways that the child can take responsibility for their behaviour and make good the harm done. The process is based on the principles of restorative justice.
During the meeting, the child and their 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. If the group cannot agree on an action plan the court may write their own or resume the court proceedings.
The agreed action plan is submitted to court for approval. The court can amend the plan. If the court approves the plan it may be supervised by a probation officer.
The court will set a date no more than 6 months later to review if the child has completed the action plan. If the court rules that the plan is not completed the court can deal with the case in some other way, for example detention or community sanctions. If the court is satisfied that the child has completed the plan, it may dismiss the charge against the child.
Further information is available on the Probation Service website.