The Children Act 2001 is the main piece of legislation that deals with youth justice. It created the Children Court which deals with criminal charges involving children under 18. This document sets out the rules of the Children Court, including the types of cases it hears, privacy and in-camera rules, and rules on the age of criminal responsibility for children.
How the Children Court operates
The purpose of the Children Court is to separate court cases involving children, from those which involve adults. In Dublin there is a separate Children Court venue in Smithfield which hears youth justice cases. Outside of Dublin, Children Court cases are often held in the District Court on different days or at different times to when adult cases are heard. Judges who sit in the Children Court can be required to do special training at the request of the President of the District Court. The aim of the 2001 Act is to ensure that the Children Court operates in a way that takes the best interests of the children concerned into account.
The Children Court deals with criminal proceedings relating to children under the age of 18 years. However, children under 12 will not be charged with an offence unless they are 10 or 11 and are being charged with murder, manslaughter, rape or aggravated sexual assault. These cases are heard in the Central Criminal Court.
If someone under the age of 14 is charged with a criminal offence the Director of Public Prosecutions must give their consent to proceed with the matter. A judge can dismiss a case against a child under the age of 14, if the judge has considered the child’s age and level of maturity and is satisfied that the child did not fully understand what was involved when carrying out the offence.
Types of cases heard in the Children Court
The Children Court has the power to deal with most criminal offences committed by children. Hearings for all minor offences are held in the Children Court, as are most serious, indictable offences. Indictable offences are crimes so serious that the charges must normally be heard before a jury in the higher courts.
Certain offences cannot be heard by the Children Court and must be heard in the Central Criminal Court. These offences include:
- Attempted murder
- Conspiracy to murder
- Aggravated sexual assault
Under the Irish Constitution a child has a right to be tried before a jury for non-minor offences. The judge asks the child if they want to have their case heard:
- In the Children Court (if the judge is willing to hear the non-minor offence in the Children Court), or
- Before a a judge and jury in the higher courts
The child can ask a parent or guardian to help with this decision.
Children and adults charged with the same offences
When a child is charged with a minor offence, with one or more adults, the offence should be heard in the Children Court. The adult will be heard as if they were before the District Court. The Children Court can also decide that the child and adult be heard in the District Court.
In situations where a child and adult are jointly charged with serious offences the child will be heard by the Children Court as if the child was charged on their own. The adult will be heard in the appropriate court for the serious offence.
A child who pleads guilty to a serious offence
If a serious offence would normally be dealt with by a higher court, but a child pleads guilty in the Children Court before the judge has sent the case to the higher court, then the judge can only send the child to the higher court for sentencing. However, before this can happen the child must sign a plea of guilty, and the court must be satisfied that the child understands the seriousness of the offence and the allegations against them. The Director of Public Prosecutions must also consent to the child’s guilty plea.
Privacy of the Children Court
The Children Court is a private court and there are restrictions on who can be present in the courtroom when the court is sitting. The following people are allowed in the courtroom during Children Court proceedings:
- Officers of the court
- The parents or guardian of the child concerned
- The child and their legal representatives
- People directly involved in the proceedings (for example, witnesses)
- An adult relative of the child or another adult, if the child’s parents or guardian are not present
- Bona fide representatives of the press
- Other people that the court allows to remain at the proceedings at the courts discretion
The in camera rule applies to the Children Court, which means that these court proceedings cannot be held in public. The orders or decisions of the Children Court are made available to the public. However, as proceedings are held in private, a report which reveals the name, address, or school of the child, or which includes information likely to identify the child cannot be published or broadcast. It is a criminal offence to break this rule.
A parent’s role at the Children Court
A child's parents or guardian must attend the Children Court when their
child is in the Children Court. If a parent or guardian does not attend, the
judge can issue a bench warrant for them. This means the Gardaí can arrest the
child’s parents or guardian to ensure they are brought before the judge.