Young adult court removes barriers to justice

February 28, 2022

Young Porirua people charged with offences no longer have to stand in the dock while lawyers and judges use language they can’t understand and make rules they are unable to follow.

For the past two years Porirua District Court has been trying a new approach for young offenders designed to make their first court appearance also their last court appearance.

This involves taking 18 to 25-year-olds out of the usual District Court and providing extra support to identify any health needs or disabilities they may have, adapting an approach used in the Youth Court.

The Young Adult List runs every Friday for people living in Porirua who have been charged with offences committed in Porirua.

It has been pioneered by Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker, who says many young people appearing in court have barriers that prevent them participating in the process. A high proportion of them have acquired brain injuries, intellectual disabilities, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) or neurodevelopment disorders.

“How do we know who we are dealing with? The safest course is to assume that someone might have barriers,” Judge Walker says.

British research has estimated that between 32 percent and 50 percent of its youth prison population have traumatic brain injuries and those rates are believed to be similar in New Zealand.

“We know that is the case. We know that from our Youth Court experience and the Family Court,” Judge Walker says. He says these issues don’t disappear when a young person reaches the age of 18. 

The presence of these disabilities, along with the fact that the young brain is still developing, requires special consideration.

Those appearing in the Young Adult List can access a range of wrap-around services similar to those available in the Youth Court, including specialist probation officers, adolescent mental health services, alcohol and other drug screening, and links to community support.

The idea is to make sure young adults can fully participate in the court process; can understand the various stages of the criminal process, for example, their bail conditions; and have the opportunity to be referred to the right support.

Judge Walker says one young man facing a raft of driving charges had a long history of driving without a licence. “The underlying cause of that is that he doesn’t have a licence. We are asking why he doesn’t have a licence. Sitting next to me on the bench is a report that he has FASD and intellectual disability and that is why he doesn’t have a licence.”

Support services swung into action and he was referred to an organisation that helped him get his licence. “He turned up eight weeks later with a restricted licence.”

Judge Walker says a person might not have a birth certificate and not know how to get one.
Dyslexia might be another underlying cause of why people breach court orders. In another case, a young man had been ordered to write a letter of apology to a victim, which he had failed to do.
Judge Walker asked him whether it might be easier to record a video apology on his phone. Which he did. Once his communication difficulties had come out in open court, the forensic nurses attending the Friday court were able to confirm that the young man was illiterate.

The Young Adult List plans to adopt a disability screening tool, which will help determine what issues are in play. An Australian online screening tool for assessing levels of disability had been considered but wasn’t the right fit for New Zealand. Work is being done to find a better one.

Judge Walker says that in the meantime those involved in the Young Adult List are using their experience to detect disabilities and make sure people can follow the process. Information from the Youth Court and Family Court is shared, and training is being offered to increase knowledge of, for example, acquired brain injury.

This Friday court drops the legal jargon. “We have nothing to lose by dropping formality, using plain language, involving whānau. We do no harm by removing those barriers,” Judge Walker says.

He doesn’t want to see families left to watch at the back of the court. “We actually do want to hear from them. They are certainly not to feel shut out. They need to be talking to the court, talking to the police, talking to lawyers. Certainly, at Porirua we would be welcoming that with open arms.”

Louise Brown, the Duty Lawyer Supervisor at Porirua District Court, has played a key role in developing the Young Adult List court pilot. “I love it. I really do. Fridays are my favourite day.”

Louise came to law from a background in sociology and education and says she feels lucky to have a job that pulls together all her experience. “I have come into my career firmly believing in rehabilitation. I believe firmly in this court. I do believe it’s making a difference, and it’s about the future.”

In teaching, “if you can reach one out of 100 you have achieved something, and we are doing better than that”, she says. “That is why I love it. I love it that there are issues here that we can answer.

“I am simplifying the language all the time. I am simplifying the bail conditions all the time. If they don’t understand, then I go back to the point where I lost them.”

And it is about changing the course of events for a young person. “I have seen it over and over. People are terrified that they have made this mistake and their life is over.”

The Young Adult List takes a bit longer to work through the legal process, but Louise sees that as an investment in the future. “You stop and take the time to understand what is going on with them,” she says. “That is why we take time because the young person has to earn the outcomes.

“A lot of the time defendants feel good that they have achieved. When they get there, there’s a lot of pride, achievement, relief.”

The Young Adult List, which ran as a pilot project from March 2020 to February 2021, has now become business as usual in Porirua. With the success of the project, the Young Adult List will be extended to Gisborne in March, followed by Hamilton.

Caption 1: Pioneer – Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker launches the Young Adult List pilot project at Porirua District Court.

Caption 2: A way back – Louise Brown, the Duty Lawyer Supervisor at Porirua District Court, believes the initiative is changing lives. 


This story was published in Strong Voices. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members. Read the full issue of Strong Voices or view more articles.