If a young person (less than 18 years of age) is accused of a crime it will usually be heard in the Children’s Court.
Cases for the most serious crimes usually start in the Children’s Court and then go to the County or Supreme Court.
If you are needed as a witness, you will get a summons letter.
Children’s Court is a special section of the Magistrates’ Court that deals with young people aged under 18 years of age.
There is also a Children’s Koori Court that may deal with sentencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people who have pleaded or been guilty of an offence.
The court process is similar to the one in the Magistrates’ Court, but with some important differences:
- In the Children’s Court, the focus for dealing with a young person is very much on rehabilitation and reducing the chance that they will offend again in the future.
- The court may consider more options for ‘diversion’ or activities that will help a young person not to reoffend, rather than detention or recording a permanent criminal record.
- If a young person is remanded or sentenced to detention, they will usually spend this time in a Youth Justice Centre, rather than a prison.
- Less information about the court case may be available to victims.
You can learn more about the Children’s Court by visiting their website.
The Children’s Court handles the:
- entire court process for most crimes committed by young people
- pre-trial stage of the court process for the most serious crimes committed by young people.
The court process for most offences committed by young people
Examples of offences that may be heard in the Children’s Court include:
- road traffic offences – for example, careless driving, drink driving and unlicensed driving
- minor assaults
- property damage
- offensive behaviour.
These cases are heard just by a magistrate. They don’t need a judge and jury.
The first stage: The mention hearing
All summary cases begin as a mention hearing.
In this hearing:
- the charge (the crime or offence) is read out to the accused young person
- the accused young person can plead guilty (which means they agree they have done the crime) or not guilty.
If the young person pleads guilty, the magistrate will need to decide the penalty (also called the sentence).
The magistrate may:
- make a decision on the day
- postpone their decision and sentence the young person on a later day. This can be called an adjournment.
Second stage: The contest mention and the contested hearing
If the accused young person pleads not guilty at the mention hearing, the case will move to the contest mention. This may happen on the day, but usually will be adjourned (postponed) to a later day.
During the contest mention, the parties (the prosecuting team, the defence team and the magistrate) may:
- come to an agreement on whether the accused young person is guilty or not guilty (if this happens the case will not need to go to a contested hearing)
- decide that the case needs to go to a contested hearing
- make decisions about what needs to happen at the contested hearing, including what witnesses will need to give evidence.
At a contested hearing, the prosecution and defence legal teams present their case to the court and a magistrate will find the young person guilty or not guilty. It is like a trial, but there is no jury.
If you are needed as a witness in the case, you will:
- get a summons letter telling you where and when the case will be
- give evidence at the contested hearing.
Children and young people who may be called as a witness can be supported by the Child Witness Service.
You can find out more about:
If the accused young person pleads guilty or is found guilty at any time in the case the magistrate will decide what penalty (sentence) they should receive.
The magistrate may decide to adjourn (delay) sentencing for up to four months to allow the young person to take steps to address issues that may have contributed to their offending.
There is a range of sentencing options for young people in Victoria. These can range from a fine or good behaviour bond to detention, which will usually mean that the young person will be sentenced to spend time in a Youth Justice Centre.
You can read more about sentencing options for young people at the Sentencing Advisory Council website.
Victim Impact Statements
Any person who has been affected by the crime can submit a Victim Impact Statement.
This is your chance to tell the court how the crime has affected you. The magistrate will consider what you have said as one of many things they think about when they are deciding the sentence.
Sentencing hearing in the Children’s Koori Court
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people who have pleaded or been found guilty of an offence may be sentenced in the Children’s Koori Court.
The Koori Court may impose the same kind of sentencing outcomes while allowing the Aboriginal community to play a greater role in the court process.
- is held around a table rather than a formal court room
- includes Elders or Respected Persons to give cultural advice to the judge or magistrate about the young person’s situation and speak to the young person about the impact of their offending.
Diversion options and programs for young people
Diversion options for young people can include:
- police cautions, which means the case will not go to court
- participation in a diversion program, which may be considered at court, before the young person enters a plea
- deferring a sentence after a young person has been found guilty to allow Youth Justice to assess the young person and prepare a pre-sentence report for the court to inform sentencing.
If the young person who has offended when aged under 18 years of age is appearing before the court, the police or the court may assess that a diversion is the most suitable option for dealing with the offence.
Diversion provides the opportunity for young people to:
- accept responsibility for their behaviour and the harm it has caused
- undertake brief intervention to reduce their risk of further offending
- have the charge or charges discharged, when they have successfully completed the diversion plan
- restrict the release of criminal history information for these offences.
If considering diversion, the court will usually seek advice from the Children’s Court Youth Diversion Service (CCYD), which attends all scheduled sittings of the Children’s Court.
Diversion targets young people who have limited or no history of offending. Research shows that the right intervention early in young people’s contact with the criminal justice system, can help to reduce their risk of re-offending. In some cases, young people will be linked with services to continue the support they require to address these behaviours.
Youth Justice Group Conferencing
Before a young person is sentenced, they may be referred by the Children’s Court for a group conference. The court may adjourn sentencing for up to four months while the conference takes place.
This is a legislated process where a young person who has been found guilty attends a meeting with people who have been affected by the crime to:
- talk about what happened and why
- hear from others about how their actions have affected them
- make a plan for how they can try to repair some of the harm caused and keep out of trouble in the future.
The young person, their legal representative and a police member must attend.
Victims, their family members and support people may be invited to be part of the conference. Victims may also choose to not attend, but instead send someone to represent them.
It is important to understand that being involved in a Youth Justice Group Conference is voluntary and not something you must do – it is always your choice. Some people do find it a helpful step in recovering from the crime.
A Victim’s Liaison Officer is available to explain what to expect at the conference and can talk with you afterwards about how it went and if you need more support.
After the conference, a report is prepared by the convenor and given to the magistrate who will take it into account, along with many other things, when deciding the young person’s sentence.
The court process for the most serious offences
Some offences are not handled in the Children’s Court because they are too serious. These offences include:
- murder and attempted murder
- arson causing death
- culpable driving causing death.
For these offences, there will be a committal hearing.
The purpose of a committal hearing is to find out if there is enough evidence that the accused young person should stand trial with a judge and jury.
Victims and witnesses may have to give evidence at this hearing. If you are needed as a witness, you will get a summons letter telling you where and when the case will be.
At the end of the hearing, the magistrate may decide that there is:
- enough evidence for a trial and the case will move on to the County Court or Supreme Court
- not enough evidence for a trial (the case will be dismissed, and the accused young person will go free).
You can learn more about the court process in the County and Supreme Courts.