Children's Law Centre ‘Rights House’ 127-131 Ormeau Road, Belfast, BT7 1SH

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Youth Justice

What is the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland?
The age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland is 10 years old, which means that from the age of 10 you can be charged with criminal offences and brought before a court.

The Youth Justice Agency, the Probation Board, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Court Service all have a role to play in the Youth Justice System which currently deals with cases involving 10-17 year olds (inclusive).
What are my rights if I am arrested and questioned by the police?
The following rights relate to what are called non-scheduled offences. For scheduled offences certain rules apply and you should speak to a solicitor for advice about these. Scheduled offences can be those related to terrorism, but can also include other serious offences such as arson, violence and serious assault.
  • You have the right to have an appropriate adult present during questioning by the police. This is a person who will explain the meaning of certain terms to you, offer you advice and support, and make sure you are being treated fairly at all times.
  • You have the right to have a solicitor present. A solicitor will advise you about the law. The police must let you talk to a solicitor at any time, and you can talk to them without the police knowing what you are saying. If you don’t know any solicitors then you can speak to the duty solicitor. You won’t have to pay for this.
  • You have the right to have your parents/carers informed about your arrest.
  • You have the right to an interpreter if this is required.
What could happen if my case doesn’t go to court?
There are a number of ways your case could be dealt with before any court proceedings take place. These are known as pre-court disposals.
  • Restorative Caution – This means that a meeting will be held with you, your parents/carer, the police, and sometimes the victim and members of the community. In order for a restorative caution to be given, the police must be satisfied that there is enough evidence available. You must also admit the offence and agree to the caution being given. A restorative caution will stay on your criminal record for two and a half years.
  • Informed warning – an informed warning can be issued by the police but you must freely admit the offence and consent to the warning being given. It will be recorded on your criminal record for 12 months.
  • Diversionary Youth Conference – This can be requested by the Director of the Public Prosecution Service before your case goes to court. The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) will write to you offering you a Diversionary Youth Conference if you admit your guilt and agree to attend the conference. A diversionary conference is a meeting or series of meetings held to consider how you should be dealt with for an offence. A conference plan will be produced, and if the prosecutor accepts it, then you must comply with it. The plan could include things like: apologising to the victim, payment of compensation, service for the community, curfews or treatment for drug or alcohol problems. If you fail to comply with the conference plan then the prosecutor can refer your case to court. A Diversionary Youth Conference is not recorded as a conviction on your criminal record.
What could happen if my case does go to court?
There are a number of different ways a court could deal with your case:
  1. A Juvenile Justice Centre Order - This is an order, which means you will normally spend 3 months in the Juvenile Justice Centre and 3 months supervised in the community by your probation officer. Sometimes these orders can be for a longer period of time (up to two years). If you breach the supervision requirements of one of these orders your case will be referred back to court and the court can impose a fine or give you a further period of detention in the Juvenile Justice Centre.
  2. An Attendance Centre Order – This will mean you have to go to an Attendance Centre. The period of time you will be required to spend at the Centre will be between 12 and 24 hours. This must not interfere with your schooling.
  3. A Community Service Order – If you are 16 or over and have committed a crime which is punishable by imprisonment, you could be given a Community Service Order. You must consent to this and it means you would be required to carry out between 40 and 240 hours of unpaid community work.
  4. A Probation Order - A Probation Order can be made to anyone over the age of ten, but if you are 14 or over you must give your consent. A Probation Order requires you to be under the supervision of a probation officer for a specified period of between 6 months and 3 years.
  5. A Combination Order – This order can only be made if you are 16 or over. It includes both a Probation Order and a Community Service Order. The Probation Order must be for between 12 months and 3 years and the amount of community service must be between 40 and 100 hours.
  6. Court Ordered Youth Conference – Youth Conferences were introduced by the Justice (NI) Act 2002 and a Youth Conference Service was set up. The court can order that a Youth Conference should take place if you plead guilty, or have been found guilty of an offence. The Youth Conference Service will organise a meeting between yourself and everyone affected by your crime, including the victim, to try and agree an action plan which aims to meet the needs of the victim as well as prevent further crime. The youth conference plan can impose a number of requirements on you and could last up to one year. If you breach the terms of a Youth Conference Order your case will be referred back to court.
  7. Reparation Orders – A reparation order means you have to make good the damage you have done to the victim of your crime. This reparation must be done in a way that doesn’t involve the payment of compensation. The order can require you to make reparation for up to 24 hours, but it must not affect your school or work hours.
  8. Community Responsibility Orders – A Community Responsibility Order can be given if you are found guilty for any crime other than one which would be punishable by life imprisonment if you were an adult. The order requires you to attend at a specified place for instruction in citizenship. You will be taught about personal and social responsibility and about the impact of crime on victims. You will also have to carry out any relevant practical activities which are considered appropriate. The number of hours specified in the order must be between 20 and 40.
  9. Custody Care Orders – (Custody Care Orders have been introduced into Northern Ireland Law but have not yet Commenced) If you are under the age of 14 and are found guilty of an offence then the court may issue a Custody Care Order. This means you will be placed in secure accommodation for a period of between 6 months and 2 years. If you are due to turn 14 during the period which you are being kept in secure accommodation, the court may specify that you should be moved to a juvenile justice centre at that stage. The period spent in secure accommodation may be followed by a period of supervision.
  10. Fines – The court can fine you, but there are limits to how much you can be fined depending on your age.
  11. Deferment – The magistrate may defer your sentence for up to 6 months. If you stay out of trouble the magistrate may take a better view of your case.
  12. Anti Social Behaviour Order – This is a civil order which can be made against children and young people from the age of 10. They can be made against you on the grounds that you have acted in a way which causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to someone. An ASBO can also be made if you are convicted of certain criminal offences. The order will last for 2 years and if you breach it the court could fine you or place you in custody for up to five years. You should ask a solicitor to represent you if an anti social behaviour order is being made against you.
  13. Absolute or conditional discharge – You can be discharged absolutely or you can be discharged on the condition that you stay out of trouble for any length of time between 6 months and 3 years. If you commit another offence during this time the court can look at your old offence as well as the new one.

Which Court will my case be heard in?
If you are charged with an offence you will usually appear before a youth court. This is a section of the magistrates’ court which is less formal than usual. In the Youth Court there are no jury cases and the case is heard by a panel of three people, including one District Judge and two lay panel members. Members of the public are not allowed into the court to listen to the case and your identity cannot be published by the media. You have the right to be represented in court by a solicitor who will advise you on the charges and procedure and act in your best interests.

If you are jointly charged with an adult the trial may be held in the magistrates’ court. If it is a more serious offence, such as murder, it may be held in the Crown Court.

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Will I be granted bail?
Normally a young person will be released on bail. You will only be remanded in custody if you are considered a risk to the public or you have allegedly committed a serious crime. The magistrate must give reasons for remanding you in custody if he chooses to do so. If you are remanded, it is likely that you will be taken to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor.

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