THE STATE is moving to establish a special Children’s Court which will have exclusive jurisdiction to deal with any matter involving a child – whether charged, or simply involved in a case. The court will form part of what is envisioned as a new division of the High Court, to be called the “Family and Children’s Division”, for which the State will assign up to 50 judicial officers: 22 judges and 28 masters.

Attorney General Faris Al Rawi last Friday tabled legislation to establish the new court, and the new division in Parliament, days after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced that amendments to the suite of legislation governing children’s matters would be next on his government’s legislative agenda.

The bill proposes to establish a Children’s Court which will handle any matter in which a child is charged with an offence. The new court will also have jurisdiction over any application that is being made, saying that a child is in need of care and protection; any application for an order under Section 61 of the Children Act, 2012; any matter where, “the primary issue in the matter is the care and protection of the child”; or any application relating to a child at which the attendance of the child is required.

The Children’s Court will also oversee: children drug matters; children mental health matters; and any matter in which a child is required to appear in court.

Clause 60 of the Family and Children Division Bill calls for the Chief Justice, as chairman of the the Rules Committee, to make rules for the new division subject to negative resolution of Parliament.

The legislation, if passed, would come into operation on such date as is fixed by the President by proclamation.

The bill, as drafted, does not seek a special majority.

According to the bill, the policy objectives of a new division – which will also feature a Family Court (entrenching a 2004 pilot project) — would include bringing about “the highest quality service to its customers, and to the community”.

It aims to have courts featuring “the employment of dedicated judicial, administrative, professional and support staff specifically trained, and having the suitable temperament for dealing with children” and to oversee a “simplification of the process of hearing children matters”. There is to be “a strong emphasis on diversionary programmes and rehabilitative programmes to assist in the rehabilitation of children who are in conflict with the law”.

The State hopes the new division will aid in the early and credible assessment of the risk level of children who come before the court, with “a strong emphasis on programmes, policies and procedures which may divert children away from conflict with the law.” The new approach to criminal justice matters involving children would also feature, “a focus on trauma-informed child justice”; “a solutions-based approach to children’s matters”; and, “providing an environment conducive to the resolution of children matters and appropriate services and programmes”.

Cases which are the least serious, where a child pleads guilty, will also be subject to a peer resolution process which would, “seek a recommendation as to the appropriate measures, or sanctions, which should be employed for the offence.” The Children’s Court will also have the power to refer adjourned matters, and refer them to a Children Drug Treatment Court Process if the child is pleading guilty, and is the subject of a pending drug-related matter or, “has a history of alcohol or substance abuse”.

The court will also refer the matter if, “the child agrees to participate”.

News Day