Demystifying the Children’s Court of Victoria
The article Demystifying the Children’s Court of Victoria is written by Cassandra Knight-Grull, Lawyer, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers.
Cassandra holds a Juris Doctor from RMIT University and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours from Monash University. She was previously a research assistant to criminal barristers at Crockett Chambers where she dealt with indictable offences in Victoria, Tasmania, and Queensland.
Cassandra has also volunteered at Youthlaw and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre as well as the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Tips for Young People and Parents
The courtroom is an intimidating place, especially for children who have been charged with criminal offences. Fortunately, the Children’s Court of Victoria is a specialist judicial body tailored to the unique needs of children in the justice system.
This article will highlight some of the unique characteristics of the Children’s Court and what you can expect if you are attending for the first time.
A Safer Space for Vulnerable Kids
The Children’s Court is a dedicated judicial body designed exclusively for children under the age of 18. It is guided by its own legislation, the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic) (‘the Act’), which provides a comprehensive framework for dealing with youth justice and child protection matters. This specialised jurisdiction allows for a deeper understanding of the complexities involved when dealing with young people, ensuring that the court’s decisions are fair and age-appropriate.
The space itself is designed to make the experience of court less intimidating for children. From the moment a child steps into the courtroom, they are greeted by professionals who specialise in dealing with young people. Even the courts themselves are devised to be more informal. Lawyers and representatives will sit rather than stand at the bar table when addressing the Magistrate and child defendants are called by their first names. Although courts themselves remain ‘open’ to the public, special legislation prohibits the media from publishing images or information that could identify a child or anyone else involved in a case.
Focus on Rehabilitation in Sentencing
The Children’s Court takes its guiding principles from the Act. For example, each time a Magistrate makes a decision about a child, this legislation says that they must consider promoting their development and protecting them from harm.1 The child’s best interests must always be paramount. While the Magistrate’s Court must balance a range of sentencing principles including punishment and deterrence, the Children’s Court considers rehabilitation to be paramount. Recognising that adolescents are still developing mentally, emotionally, and socially, the court’s primary objective is to guide them towards positive change.
The court is required to consider a sentence that ‘fits the young offender’ just as much as, if not more, than it ‘fits the crime’,2 and prioritise certain outcomes, such as keeping the child at home and in school, preserving their relationship with family, and minimising stigma.3 These priorities play out in multiple ways. There is usually a greater focus on incorporating support services such as counselling, education, and therapy, and the court is able to draw on a host of sentencing options that are not available to adults. This gives them greater flexibility to tailor a sentence to the particular needs of a young person.
The court encourages alternatives to traditional court processes, such as diversion programs, which aim to divert young offenders away from the formal court process. Imprisonment is considered a last resort, given the plethora of evidence showing that imprisonment of children leads to higher rates of recidivism. Instead, the focus is on community-based sentences, such as probation orders, attendance at rehabilitation programs, or even more intensive justice options, such as Youth Justice Group conferencing.
The Children’s Court is fundamentally collaborative. It brings together various professionals, including magistrates, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and youth justice workers, to form a multidisciplinary team. This team approach allows for a comprehensive assessment of a child’s circumstances and facilitate informed decision-making. By considering the whole picture, the Children’s Court can tailor its interventions to meet the specific needs of each child. It’s not uncommon to see Court Support Coordinators wandering the halls of the court, chatting to young people, and connecting them with services to support their education, mental and physical health, and social and cultural wellbeing.
In a recent matter, Doogue + George acted for a 15-year-old client who was charged with burglary offences. We discussed the charges and the client’s circumstances with prosecution and had the most serious charges withdrawn. We pointed out that since the incident, our client had begun engaging with a counsellor and was now well supported. The prosecution agreed to recommend the client for diversion.
On the day of court, the client attended an assessment with a diversion coordinator. This went for around 45 minutes and included a discussion of her personal circumstances, future goals, and attitude towards the offence. During the assessment, our client also wrote an apology letter to the victim.
The diversion coordinator recommended the client for same-day diversion, and because our client had expressed a desire to study beauty therapy, they were referred to a representative from the Department of Education and Training to discuss the steps required to enrol in a TAFE beauty course. Our client spoke to the representative while waiting to be called into court and have the Diversion process finalised by the Magistrate.
In court, submissions were made on behalf of the client about why they were a deserving candidate for diversion and about their bright prospects for rehabilitation. The Court ultimately granted same-day diversion with no further conditions to complete, and the charges were dismissed.
An experienced lawyer can effectively support a young person through the court process and ensure favourable outcomes that reflect a child’s best interests and ability to reform. Our aim is always to achieve the best outcome for our young people and ensure they are guided through the system in a way that minimises any negative impacts. The Children’s Court can form to be a springboard for better support and opportunities for young people and provide a pathway away from future risk.
 Children, Youth And Families Act 2005 (Vic) s 10.
 CNK v The Queen (2011) 32 VR 641;  VSCA 228 at .
 Children, Youth And Families Act 2005 (Vic) s 362.
Date Published: 19 July 2023