Young people share cultural considerations in court project

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people continue to be overrepresented in South Australia’s youth justice system. In 2017-18, Aboriginal children and young people made up 66 per cent of the average daily 10 to 17 year olds in detention in the Adelaide Youth Training Centre. This is despite constituting less than five per cent of the state’s total population of children and young people.

In response to these concerning statistics, the Courts Administration Authority (CAA) called on Training Centre Advocate Travis Thomas and Advocate, Aboriginal Children Conrad Morris from the Office of the Guardian to assist with a project to interview Aboriginal young people about their experiences in the youth justice, child protection and courts systems.

Travis and Conrad were asked to identify young people that could be involved in the project. They then held an initial workshop to brief the young people on what the process would involve and what kind of questions they may be asked. This created a safe environment that allowed the young people to open up about their experiences.

Despite being initially surprised at being asked to participate, both young people were eager to get involved and share their stories.

Training Centre Advocate, Travis Thomas, behind the scenes of filming

Led by Justice Martin Hinton, this was part of a larger project that aims to bridge the gap in existing cultural awareness training for Judges and Magistrates. The project interviewed Aboriginal South Australians of different ages and from different mobs, including Stolen Generations. It aimed to draw on the experiences of Aboriginal people who have come into contact with the justice system and bring to life the findings of many reports published.

‘That would help us to overcome things like systemic racism and ethnocentrism, and to better understand what we needed to do to deliver justice to Aboriginal people appearing in our courts,’ Justice Hinton says.

The CAA wanted to speak with young people in care and custody because of the known correlation between care experience and imprisonment later in life.

One of the key things Justice Hinton took away from the project is the understanding that things started going wrong for the young people when they were removed from their family and community.

‘Being taken into care and into custody separates them from family, many family members are also in custody. The effect on culture, identity and self-esteem is devastating. They struggle to know who they are,’ Justice Hinton says.

Both young people shared pride in their Aboriginal heritage with one saying, ‘it’s good because it makes me feel like I belong somewhere. Not every person can say I belong to these people and everything like that.’

With maturity and conviction beyond their years, they shared their lived experience of the system and dealing with the intergenerational trauma they have experienced as young Aboriginal people.

Another take away from the project was that young people don’t feel like they’re being listened to when they’re in court.

‘Children and young people in particular can lose their voice in the systems—they are talked at, not too or with. This is a familiar experience within the court system where children and young people rely on their representative to talk for them,’ says Travis.

This was affirmed, with one of the young people saying, ‘sometimes when I’m in court I’ll tell my lawyer to say stuff, he says it but he doesn’t say it in the way that I want him to say it’ and ‘I never understand what they say in court. I always ask to speak to my lawyer after to tell me what happened… You’re just in and out and then you have to be like what just happened, I don’t know.’

The young people involved voiced their opinions on what cultural considerations the Judges and Magistrates need to think about when working with Aboriginal young people.

When asked what they think the Judges don’t understand about being Aboriginal, one of the young people replied, ‘they don’t understand us. They don’t take the time to talk to us properly or talk to people that know us. Like if the Judge sat there and talked to my Nana, I reckon they would think different about me.’

Justice Hinton acknowledges that this program is, of course, not a silver bullet. However, he hopes the understanding taken from project will have a knock-on effect on the profession and begin to filter back into society generally.

‘This project will be a step in the all too slow process of the change that must happen,’ he says.

When asked what they would change about the system, one young person said it would be to ‘employ people who’ve already been through law and that. They could come in and help. Like other Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, but still that’s been through the jail system. They would have a better understanding.’

Many others assisted the CAA and the Office of the Guardian in the project’s development and consultation. These included Steven Van Diermen from CAA, Shane Tongerie from Youth Justice and the Department of Child Protection for supporting the two young people to participate.

Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers’ first birthday – 20 years on

Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers’ CEO, Fiona Endacott

Twenty years ago Connecting Foster Carers was a small self-help group of carers who met to exchange support and information in each other’s homes. Recently, Connecting Foster & Kinship Carers – SA celebrated it’s first year as a funded Carer Advocacy Service with it’s own offices and paid staff.

In her 2016 report The Life They Deserve Commissioner Margaret Nyland heard the calls from foster and kinship carers for an organisation that could advocate for them and her recommendation for a funded body was supported by the government.

‘Winning the funding meant we could expand what we do but we are still very much a grass roots organisation that focusses on the realities of carers,’ said Connecting Foster and Kinship Carers – SA Chief Executive Officer Fiona Endacott.

‘Carers can call us on our 1800 number seven days a week and if we are not there we guarantee to call back within 48 hours.  We provide helpful advice and support and, if it is needed, we advocate with and for them within the Out of Home Care system.

‘It’s important that we advocate firmly and respectfully so that we get matters resolved but also maintain good relationships with stakeholders within the system so we can work with them in the future.

‘Sometimes being a carer can be very isolating and the best thing we can do is to connect a carer with somebody in our Peer Support Network who understands what it means to be a carer and share their experiences.

‘The other important need for foster and kinship carers is information that is reliable and presented in a way that is useful to them.  We provide some basic information on our website but where we see a need we develop specific packages around important topics and run morning teas where we invite guests from government and non-government organisations to talk with carers.

‘We survey our members, now more than 800, every year.  In our last survey, understanding and managing children’s behaviour and helping young people to reach their potential were the top two issues.

‘Family based care provided by foster and kinship carers is still by far the best option for children who come into state care but each month the number of calls we get increases and so does the complexity of the matters that carers raise.

‘There is clearly still a lot of work for all of us to do,’ concluded Fiona.

You can find out more at the CF&KC-SA website, become a member or follow them on Facebook.

Email at [email protected] or phone 1800 732 272.

National principles for child safe organisations

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found many organisations had failed to protect children and to respond appropriately when information about abuse was disclosed.

In response to findings and recommendations from the Royal Commission, the Australian Government commissioned the development of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The National Children’s Commissioner, Megan Mitchell led the development of the National Principles, in consultation with relevant peak organisations, children and young people, and Commonwealth and state governments.

Reflecting the ten child safe standards recommended by the Royal Commission, the National Principles go beyond sexual abuse to include other forms of harm to children and young people.

The National Principles apply to government, non-government and commercial organisations, including early childhood services, schools, out-of-home care, sports clubs, churches, youth groups, health services and youth detention services.

The ten National Principles put the best interests of children and young people front and centre. They cover all aspects of what organisations need to do to keep young people safe—from the culture of the organisation and the role of families and communities, to the recruitment and ongoing training of staff and respecting equity and diversity.

Many organisations across the country already work hard to ensure children and young people are protected from harm. The National Principles are not intended to override existing measures, but create a national minimum benchmark.

How will they be implemented?

In February 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Principles.

Alongside the National Principles, the National Office for Child Safety (NOCS) was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the Australian Government’s response to the Royal Commission. The NOCS will work with state and territory governments and organisations to lead the implementation of the National Principles.

In South Australia, the Department for Education will lead the implementation of the National Principles with state-specific resources and supporting tools to be developed. Organisations providing care to children and young people will need to continue to meet the Child safe Environments: Principles of Good Practice while the implementation of the National Principles is progressing.

How can an organisation adopt the National Principles?

Each National Principle is accompanied by key action areas and indicators that act as a guide for organisations to ensure they are implemented in practice.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has developed a range of tools and resources to assist in the implementation of the National Principles. An introductory video provides further explanation on the development and future implementation of the National Principles and a Learning Hub and Practical Tools provide organisations further guidance.

For children and young people

The National Principles are about putting children and young people at the centre of practice. The AHRC has developed resources for children and young people and a version of the National Principles in child-friendly language. It also covers information for parents and carers how to identify an organisation is child safe.

 

External monitoring, charters and conventions come together to improve youth justice detention

Events at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2016 alarmed the community and shone a spotlight on the unsuitable treatment and environment in youth detention centres across the country.

Riots, like those seen at Don Dale and other detention centres, demonstrated how complaints and concerns among residents could fester unaddressed and escalate without appropriate and timely intervention. It is essential that the wellbeing of residents and staff in institutions closed to public view is assessed and monitored to ensure young people in juvenile detention, who are some of our most vulnerable, are protected.

Improving and strengthening the way places of detention are monitored is one way to prevent mistreatment. In jurisdictions across Australia there are processes in place to investigate and review detention facilities.

In South Australia, the Training Centre Visitor Unit (TCVU) conducts visits to both campuses of the Adelaide Youth Training Centre (AYTC). Legislated in the Youth Justice Administration Act 2016, the Training Centre Visitor protects and promotes the rights and best interests of young people on remand or sentenced at the AYTC. This allows the visitor ‘to act as an advocate for the residents of a training centre to promote the proper resolution of issues relating to the care, treatment or control of the residents.’

The ability to make a complaint to an independent person, like an official visitor, is also one of the rights in the Charter of Rights for Youths Detained in Detention Centres.

In March, the TCVU released a report about its pilot visiting program and review of records. During the pilot, residents raised issue with the frequency of unclothed searches. By identifying these kinds of resident concerns and raising them with AYTC management and the Minister, external visitors can draw attention to degrading procedures as well as potentially preventing the issue from escalating. Readers may have seen a recent article in the Advertiser in which Penny Wright, the Training Centre Visitor, made it clear that she did not support the continuation of excessive and intrusive strip searching and methods such as ‘squat and cough’.

This preventative approach will be further refined following Australia’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT is an international agreement that’s main aim is to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention.

Australia has three years in which to fulfil its obligations and develop an independent National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) to comply with its obligation under OPCAT. The NPM conducts inspections of all closed spaces and places of detention. Australia joins 88 other countries as a party to OPCAT, 71 of which have designated their NPM.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been conducting consultations on how Australia should implement OPCAT.  The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also coordinating an assessment about how a ‘diffuse’ NPM model might operate across State and Territory jurisdictions.  At the moment it is unclear what Australia’s NPM will look like and what the involvement of existing monitoring bodies will be.

The TCVU will conduct its first formal inspection of the AYTC in the final quarter of this year. It will be informed by the work and information gained during the program of visits and reviews of records that have been implemented since mid-2018. This inspection process is being developed so it will be compliant with OPCAT requirements.

Around the world, jurisdictions similar to Australia are having success with models of juvenile rehabilitation that are radically different to those here. Much stronger independent oversight and monitoring will increase transparency and identify problems before they intensify. Success can also be measured by the way these programs challenge and force reconsideration of the largely penal model that dominates Australia’s thinking.

A new focus on family

By Guardian Penny Wright and Malcolm Downes

The State Government’s newly announced strategy An Intensive Support System for South Australia’s children and families promises a more sustained and holistic response to child protection by shifting the focus to families.  Under the strategy the Child and Family Assessment and Referral Networks (CFARNs), the Child Wellbeing Practitioner and Strong Start programs will be brought together in a new Intensive Support Unit to be formed in the Department for Human Services.

The family, in its many styles and structures, remains at the core of human society.  It is how we care for each other, a basic economic unit, a basis for our sense of who we are, a psychological comfort and a vehicle for raising our children.  It is also the site of some of our greatest problems, of violence, abuse and neglect.  Over generations it can perpetuate our noblest aspirations but also nurture our darkest failings.  For some families, problems with poverty, debt, unemployment, drug misuse, mental illness, family violence, insecure housing and contact with the justice system combine to create major barriers to the enjoyment of the relative wellbeing and wealth that our community has to offer.

Informed by the research commissioned on the back of the Nyland Royal Commission into the Child Protection System in SA, the Department’s planned Intensive Support Unit promises to focus squarely on the families with the most entrenched and challenging issues.  It aims to work with families to identify issues they face and coordinate the services and supports they need in sustained way.  In the past we have striven to ‘rehabilitate’ the individual young offender or ‘cure’ the person with a mental illness without regard for the social circumstances they came from and to which, in all likelihood, they will return.  The Department’s new strategy will refocus the bulk of the family support, domestic violence and children’s support services that it provides and contracts on these families.

‘Troubled Families’

The rationale and structure resembles the Troubled Families program that has been in place in the United Kingdom since 2012. The program recently released its National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015-2020: Findings Evaluation overview policy reportIn the UK program, intervention is based on a keyworker who builds an understanding of problems and of the individual family dynamics. They look at the totality of what’s going on and use what the report calls ‘a persistent and assertive approach establishing a relationship with the family and working closely with them to make sure the family resolve their problems’. The keyworker agrees on a plan with the family and local services so that interventions are sequenced and coordinated and there is a shared ownership of outcomes among service providers.

The evaluation report shows some headline gains including an almost one-third reduction in children being taken into care after a 19-24 month intervention and a one-quarter reduction in young people receiving custodial sentences.  The economic benefits and net budget savings modeled in the report make a strong argument for the UK Government to persist with the program.

We should anticipate that the South Australian strategy, like Troubled Families, will encounter some challenges as it is rolled out.  Services will need to adapt their practice, data collection and information sharing to a family-based way of working – and being funded.  We can look to the NDIS as an example of the difficulties a change of service and funding model can produce for clients and providers if not well managed, no matter how well intended. The shift to a payment-by-results model can produce distortions in the provision of services and a gaming of the system if not well-conceived and managed from the outset.

Aboriginal families

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new strategy will be how well it addresses the outcomes for Aboriginal families. The last Closing the Gap report confirmed that, after more than ten years of investment, we still struggle to provide services to the Aboriginal community that are culturally safe, trusted and effective.  If we shift the focus to families we will have to understand and embrace an Aboriginal concept of family which is very different in how it operates to the white European model on which much of our current system is based.  On top of that we will have to translate what words like ‘disadvantaged’, ‘troubled’, ‘struggling’, ‘complex’, and the many other policy terms governments use, mean to Aboriginal families. It will need to develop an understanding of how Aboriginal families define their needs and what success means to them.

To its credit, the new DHS strategy explicitly acknowledges the necessity for serious Aboriginal involvement in the design and governance of the new system and in the decisions that affect the lives of Aboriginal families and children.  Getting this right for Aboriginal families will be a touchstone for the success of the strategy as a whole and its ability to serve the very diverse set of groupings and relationships that we call ‘family’ in the 21st Century.

Rights concerns over Youth Treatment Order Bill

Penny Wright – Guardian for Children and Young People

We know that substance misuse can have terrible consequences for children and young people.  Their developing brains can be seriously harmed by the use of legally available substances like alcohol and solvents, as well as cannabis and a growing array of other drugs.

Substance abuse can lead to reduced intellectual capacity, permanent behaviour changes and long-term, debilitating mental health problems. It can also exacerbate or be associated with other dangers, risky behaviour, criminal associations and vulnerability to exploitation.

Occasionally the consequences are very public and are reflected in tragic headlines. We want to protect children and young people and we want to protect the community.

My office and I give credit to the Government for acknowledging and trying to address this difficult issue, with the introduction of the Controlled Substances (Youth Treatment Orders) Amendment Bill into Parliament last year. However, in providing for the detention of young people for up to 12 months for compulsory treatment, the Bill raises many serious concerns.

Deprivation of liberty

Our community is rightly cautious about depriving anyone of liberty who has not been convicted of committing an offence.  Our legal system and international treaties to which we are a signatory protect the right of people, including young people, to their freedom.  We deprive people of their liberty only under exceptional, very specific circumstances and with the assumption that their rights will be protected in relevant legal processes.

There is a danger when the legal deprivation of liberty might be misused by a community to dispose of people who are inconvenient. So, as a community we must be wary about any solution that creates a ‘too hard basket’ into which inconvenient and hard to deal with young people can be relegated.

Human rights

These concerns are backed up in a submission from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, which was released in February. It argues that the Bill poses a significant risk to a number of human rights and also reiterates that detention should only be used as a last resort and for the shortest period of time.

The submission raises further issues around international human rights laws concerning the protection of people with disability from forced medical intervention. The Bill, at present, has no specific protections for children and young people with disabilities.

Will this ‘solution’ work?

The second question about the proposed treatment orders is their efficacy.  The Bill was introduced with scant consultation with the many government and non-government agencies that have long     involvement and experience with young people affected by substance misuse.  It also seems to have been drafted with little regard for the experience of other similar jurisdictions in Australia and overseas and for the considerable body of research that points to the complexity of the problem but also provides some valuable ways forward.

A significant number of the young people who come into state care become involved in substance misuse.  The range of circumstances—physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect—that bring them into state care also leave many deeply affected by trauma.  Self-medicating with legal and illegal substances can become for them a viable way to cope with the pain of that trauma in the absence of other treatments.  For others, deprived of secure family and community attachments, the community of drug users can provide a much-needed family and identity not provided elsewhere.

Young people in care and detention

This particular group of young people is well known to those of us at the Office of the Guardian.  They do not define the extent of the problem but do give an indication of the complex reasons why young people turn to substance abuse. Our experience shows the diversity and complexity of the solutions we need to offer if we are going to be effective.  There is already a serious shortfall in the provision of drug rehabilitation services for young people who actually want them. Government responses that assume ready access to non-existent services or new programs that are not properly planned and resourced, are doomed to fail.

If there is a case for the involuntary detention of some drug-affected young people for short periods, that evidence must be mustered. But informed opinion agrees that effective rehabilitation will be achieved only by long-term, evidence-based programs that address the individual causes and in conjunction with the family and community that surrounds them. Treatment needs to be health focussed, rather than treated as a legal issue.

The Youth Treatment Orders Bill, which is again due for debate in the Legislative Council this week, should be withdrawn in its current form. Let us make use of the knowledge and experience in our community, alongside the considerable body of research to craft a response, and voluntary services, that offer genuine hope of assisting children and young people with a substance abuse problem, while still safeguarding their freedom.

Some gaps closed but many remain for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

More than a decade on from the original report, the 2019 Closing the Gap report shows only two of the seven original targets are on track to be met.

Important targets around education, health and employment have expired before they were met, while other targets to halve the gap in life expectancy remain off track.

These shortfalls perpetuate Aboriginal disadvantage and contribute directly and indirectly to the high proportion of Aboriginal children and young people coming into state care and coming into contact with the youth justice system.

What’s been achieved?

The target to see 95 per cent of all Indigenous four year olds enrolled in early education by 2025 is on track to be met. In 2017, South Australia had education enrolments about the 95 per cent benchmark with universal enrolments.

Halving the gap in Year 12 attainment, or equivalent, by 2020 is on track to be met. Nationally, the gap has decreased from 36 percentage points in 2006 to 24 percentage points in 2016.

What’s remains to be done?

A number of the original targets expired last year, on the tenth anniversary of Closing the Gap. These included a target to halve the gap in child mortality. While the rate has declined by 10 per cent since 2008, the gap has widened because the non-Indigenous rate has declined faster.

The national school attendance rate was around 82 per cent for Indigenous students in 2018. There has been no improvement in school attendance rates for indigenous students in South Australia in the last four years. While there has been improvement, targets to close the gap in literacy and numeracy have also not been met.

Large gaps remain between the life expectancy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The target to close the gap within a generation, by 2031, is also not on track to be met.

Targets to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade have not been met. The gap has not only not narrowed, but it has widened.

After 11 years of Closing the Gap significant gaps remain. Ambitious targets were set but many observers have noted that the failure to work closely with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and to make the necessary structural, systemic changes have led to a largely disappointing result.

What’s next?

The latest Closing the Gap report promises a new collaborative approach.

Last year, the council of Australian Governments (COAG) developed Closing the Gap Refresh. It commits the Commonwealth Government to creating a partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to ensure the next phase is driven by principles of empowerment and self-determination.

Indigenous advocates have pushed for new targets to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in out-of-home care.

Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are ten times more likely to enter out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It’s predicted the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will more than triple over the next 20 years without intervention.

In South Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are seven times more likely to be in care than the same age group in the general population and Draft Closing the Gap Refresh Targets mandate targets that will see significant and sustained program to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are still over-represented in the justice system, making up more than 50 per cent of young Australians in detention. Another state led target is to reduce the rate of young people in detention by 11 to 19 per cent by 2028.

Under the new framework, different levels of government are held accountable and responsible for different priorities. State and territory governments will also be required to make annual reports on its Closing the Gap strategies and progress.

The Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Commissioner will also independently review progress every three years.

There is still much of the new strategy that is uncertain as federal, state and territory governments finalise the draft targets and develop appropriate responses. For example, South Australian government released its Aboriginal education strategy late last year to increase outcomes for Aboriginal students but it remains to be seen how it will work to meet these targets to close the gap of young people in out-of-home care and youth justice.

Australia reports to the UN on child rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the most important documents in preserving the rights of children around the world.

Every five years the Australian Government must report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, a requirement of Australia as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Australian Government is currently preparing for its meeting with the Committee, following the release of its report in January 2018.

In this post, we look at two accompanying reports responding to Australia’s report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The Australian Child Rights Taskforce is a peak body made up of more than 100 organisations advocating for the rights of Australian children. Convened by UNICEF Australia, the taskforce released its ‘alternative’ report, which includes the voices of 572 children and young people consulted in 30 locations around the country. It makes 191 recommendations to promote and protect the rights of children in Australia.

Similarly, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an independent statutory organisation promoting and protecting human rights in Australia, released a report. It was written following consultations with approximately 450 children and a further 22,700 through an online national poll on child rights.

While the Government’s report is no longer available online, these two reports look exhaustively at matters relating to children in Australia. We are considering some of the areas relating specifically to children and young people in out-of-home care.

Since Australia last reported to the Committee, there have been 24 separate inquiries, which have each identified issues with the child protection sector. The AHRC report finds the number of children and young people in out-of-home care has increased by 18 per cent in the past five years. The alternative report identifies problems with inconsistency and a lack of emphasis on frameworks being child centred.

Concerns for care leavers

Both reports identify concerns with young people leaving out-of-home care, with the AHRC report finding nearly 35 per cent of young people who leave out-of-home care become homeless. Last year the South Australian Government committed to extending the age young people leave out-of-home care from 18 to 21 years of age.

However, this does not yet include the 11 per cent of children and young people in residential and emergency care. Both reports recommend the Australian Government increase, or consider increasing, the age children leave care and call on governments to implement policy to prepare young people transitioning to independence.

Over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

The reports are both concerned with the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in child protection and out-of-home care. Indigenous children are almost ten times more likely to enter out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.

The alternative report makes a number of recommendations in this area, including the implementation of nationally consistent standards to respect all five elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Placement Principle. It also calls on the Australian Government to commit to ‘Closing the Gap’ targets to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

Transgender and gender diverse young people

Transgender and gender diverse children in Australia can now access Stage 2 medical treatment without requiring court authorisation, but this does not extend to include children and young people in the out-of-home care and juvenile justice systems. These children still require a court authorisation to begin treatment.

What’s next?

The UN Committee will consider the findings of these reports ahead of the formal meeting with Australia. At the end of this process, the UN Committee will provide the Australian Government with its Concluding Observations, which will include progress made by Australia and recommendations for improvement.

While the Committee cannot legally enforce its recommendations, it can provide guidance for the Australian Government to improve its practice and better protect the rights of children and young people. The process is also the opportunity to highlight specific issues, like those discussed above, and create interest for the public and other advocates to hold the Australian Government to account and to take action.

Doli incapax – an odd word with profound significance for South Australian children

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in South Australia is 10 years old. If you are a child under 10 years old in South Australia, you are deemed to be incapable of committing a crime – you are presumed not intellectually and morally developed enough to conceive of the difference between right and wrong.  If you are between 10 and 14 and are charged with an offence, it is up to the prosecution to prove that, at the time of the offence, you understood what you did was seriously wrong, and not just naughty.  If they can’t prove that, you are presumed to be doli incapax (from the Latin ‘incapable of evil’).

Such an obligation on the prosecution is designed to result in a graduated response across an age range where the court can take into account the considerable variation in intellectual and emotional maturity in the young people who appear before it.

Barrister Marie Shaw QC and lawyer Brittany Armstrong presented a paper on doli incapax at the Law Society in January. This was motivated by their experiences representing 10 to 14 year olds in the Youth Court and, in many cases, the protection of doli incapax was not being properly utilised. As young people in care, and particularly those in residential care, are so over-represented in our youth justice system, this particularly affects them.

In a number of cases known to advocates within the Guardian and Training Centre Visitor’s office, doli incapax was not presumed, and in at least one instance the defence was put to the task of proving doli incapax.

If this is to be a safeguard for children charged with criminal offences then it should be considered from the time of police interview, to bail applications, and if a 10 to 14 year-old comes before a court.  It is currently not. The reasons it is not are not entirely clear but could include a lack of knowledge by the child or their advocates of this presumption, the strong desire to ‘plead out’ by a child or their advocate in order to resolve the matter more quickly, or other interactions between the child protection and youth justice systems not yet understood.

By no means is this presumption of doli incapax a ‘get out of jail free card’. Each time a child or young person comes before the youth justice system, they are less likely to be presumed doli incapax.

The implications for children

Research shows that the younger a child is when they come into contact with the justice system, the more likely they are to have sustained contact.

The developmental maturity of children in this age group also means they are often insufficiently capable of engaging in youth justice processes. Children may be more likely to accept a plea offer, give false confessions or not keep up with court proceedings.

Keeping younger people out of the youth justice system would also mitigate the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children in youth justice.

International comparisons

Australia’s age of criminal responsibility is comparatively low compared with other countries around the world. The United Nations has proclaimed that the absolute minimum age should be 12 years old with that recommendation likely to increase to 14. The UN has called on Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility, bringing it in line with its obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

In 1998, England and Wales abolished the principle of doli incapax. Like Australia, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. In turn, any child over the age of nine can be arrested, interviewed by police, charged and then convicted of a crime and receive a criminal record. There are calls for both nations to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

In line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Canada raised the minimum age from 10 to 12 years, but also removed the presumption of doli incapax. This leaves children aged 12 and 13 vulnerable.

Similarly, Ireland raised the minimum aged from 10 to 12 years old, but it has also maintained the doctrine of doli incapax.

Other countries with the minimum age for criminal responsibility higher than 14 don’t recognise the presumption of doli incapax. For example, Luxembourg, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay has set the age of criminal responsibility at 18.

While many have argued that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 12, children aged 13 to 14 should still be protected by the principles of doli incapax.