Before the Children’s Court was established in the State of Victoria in 1906, children were dealt with in the same courts and with the same procedures as adults. Eventually, the community recognised that children were in need of special treatment within both the justice and welfare systems of the State.
A Special Court for Children
In 1906, under the Children’s Court Act, the Children’s Court was established at every place where a Court of Petty Sessions (now known as the Magistrates’ Court) was held. The jurisdiction of the Court was an exclusive one, confined to children under the age of 17 years, and had responsibility for:
- The hearing and inquiring into all charges and informations against children for felony and misdemeanour, with power to discharge or commit for trial.
- The hearing and determination of all informations for offences punishable on summary conviction.
- The hearing and determination of all charges and applications in relation to the committal of children authorised by the Neglected Children’s Act 1890 or Part II, Division 2 of the Crimes Act 1890.
The Children’s Court could exercise all the powers and authorities possessed by the Court of Petty Sessions, and generally all the provisions of the Justices Act 1890. The Court sat as a closed court.
A total of 3,303 young people appeared before the Children’s Court in 1911, of which 811 were neglected children cases.
The First Melbourne Children's Court
The 1930’s saw a number of significant developments in the Children’s Court area. Firstly, a specific facility was created for the first Melbourne Children’s Court. The Court sat for a half day per week (Thursday pm) at the Gordon Institute which was on the site of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. When this building was no longer available the Court sittings were transferred to Carlow House in Flinders Lane where the administrative offices of the Court were located.
Secondly, the first stipendiary magistrate and the first two stipendiary probation officers were appointed to the Court. Prior to this, special magistrates (Justices of the Peace who had been appointed to the Court by the Governor-in-Council) adjudicated in the Court. By 1939 there were 117 special magistrates in the metropolitan area and 29 in country areas. The gender breakdown was – metropolitan, 65 men and 52 women – country, 22 men and seven women. Apart from sitting at 21 courts regularly – two each day – the stipendiary magistrate took on the role of lecturing on the law to special magistrates and arranging training classes for honorary probation officers.
In 1939 5,491 young people were brought before the Children’s Court. This included 610 children who were brought before the Court as neglected children.
On 2 December 1960 a new Children’s Court at Melbourne, situated in Batman Avenue, was opened. The building had two courtrooms but no holding rooms. Children in custody sat with a police officer in the public waiting areas. By 1963 the Court sat twice a week. It was not until 1972 that daily sittings of the Children’s Court were introduced.
A Major Review of Child Welfare Practice and Legislation
In 1982 the Victorian Government put together a Committee chaired by Professor Terry Carney with the task of reviewing child welfare practice and legislation. The Committee handed down its final report in 1984 and made a number of recommendations affecting the structure of the Children’s Court. The Children and Young Persons Act 1989 put many of those recommendations into practice including opening up proceedings to both the public and the media.
The Children and Young Persons Act 1989 established a Family Division of the Children’s Court which is distinct and separate from the Criminal Division and which has special procedures open to it to deal with child protection matters.
The Act, again in line with the Committee’s recommendations, increased the minimum age of criminal responsibility from eight to 10 years and expanded the non-custodial sentencing options available to the Court to emphasise the rehabilitative nature of the Court and enshrine the principles of natural justice.
The Children’s Court at Melbourne moved again to a new location in Queensbridge Street, South Melbourne. The Queensbridge Street building was officially opened on 9 February 1990. Whilst it was a first attempt to create a court which physically separated young people at the Court for criminal offending as opposed to those at court for child protection matters, it fell far short of what was required.
A New Children's Court
On 29 December 1999 the Melbourne Children’s Court moved from South Melbourne to a new purpose-built court at 477 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. The three storey building has seven courtrooms (four Family Division and three Criminal Division) with two additional multi-purpose rooms for future expansion. The design philosophy of the building was based on openness, accessibility and respect. A major feature of the building is the geographical separation of the two Divisions to make a clear distinction between those young people at court for alleged criminal offending and those at court on alleged protective issues.
The courtrooms are simple and non-threatening in their design and contain state-of-the-art technology, including video-conferencing and remote witness facilities. Other features include natural light to large public waiting and foyer areas, private courtyards, numerous interview rooms, spacious offices for user groups and internal and external play areas equipped with a variety of activities for children.
The complex also includes pre-hearing conference rooms, a secure welfare facility and the Children’s Court Clinic which has a separate entrance. The holding facility, containing seven cells (five for juveniles and two for adults) provides natural light and courtyard views for young people held in custody. The official opening of the new complex on 14 April 2000 coincided with the Attorney-General’s announcements of major reforms to the Children’s Court jurisdiction.
An Independent Court with a Judge as President
During the Autumn 2000 sittings, Parliament passed the Children and Young Persons (Appointment of President) Act 2000. The Act established the Children’s Court, until that time a division of the Magistrates’ Court, as an independent court. The legislation also provided that the head of the Court be a County Court judge to be known as President of the Children’s Court of Victoria.
The aim of the legislation was to elevate the status and authority of the Court and to demonstrate the important role played by the Children’s Court in our judicial system in providing a specialised court catering for children and young people in both the criminal and family jurisdictions.