Youth justice

In Northern Ireland, the system for dealing with children and young people, aged 10 to 17, who offend is different and separate from that for adult offenders.

The youth justice system

The youth justice system in Northern Ireland aims to:

  • prevent offending and re-offending by children and young people by working with them, their parents and carers
  • support victims of crime to help them come to terms with what has happened

The youth justice system works with young people who offend. They can:

  • help young people to improve their behaviour and integrate back into their communities
  • encourage young people to make amends for their crimes
  • show young people who offend the consequences of their crimes
  • deal with young people appropriately, depending on the seriousness and persistence of their offending

Age of criminal responsibility

Children under 10 are considered not to have reached an age where they can be held responsible for their actions. Because they are under the "age of criminal responsibility" they can't be charged with any criminal offence.

Children aged 10 or over are considered to be fully responsible for their actions in the same way an adult is. There are some differences in the sentences young people can receive.

Decisions to prosecute youth crime

The Public Prosecution Service will consider each case and decide whether to:

  • refer back to the police for further investigation
  • refer for a diversionary disposal
  • refer the case to court
  • close the case without prosecution
  • Going to a youth conference
  • Youth court and court ordered sentences

A young person may be referred for prosecution for offences when they have committed a serious offence or have two or more previous offences on record.

For anti-social behaviour, the police and local authorities can use voluntary agreements like Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) or civil orders such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are known as ASBOs.

For repeat or more serious offences the Public Prosecution Service can send the case to court where the district judge may impose a range of sentences including custody. If the child has admitted guilt, they may refer the case to the Youth Justice Agency for a pre-court diversionary youth conference.

Dealing with young people outside the court system

For first or second time minor offences or anti-social behaviour, young people may be dealt with outside the court system. This is when the police or the Public Prosecution Service can give a diversionary sentence such as an "Informed Warning" or "Restorative Caution".

Diversionary sentences

When it is decided that a young person will receive a diversionary sentence, the investigating officer and Youth Diversion Officer from the PSNI will make recommendations to the PPS on the most suitable sentence. Before reaching a decision they will take into account a number of factors, including:

  • seriousness of the offence
  • previous offending history
  • vulnerability of the victim
  • likelihood of reoffending

For young people there are three diversionary disposals available.  

Informed warning

A young person may receive an informed warning for less serious offences. The warning will normally take place in a police station and will be delivered by a trained police officer. The young person will be accompanied by their parents(s)/carer(s). A written record will be taken and all those present will be required to sign it.

An informed warning is not a conviction and will only stay on a criminal record for 12 months, unless further offending takes place.

Restorative caution

A young person may receive a restorative caution for more serious offences. The caution will normally take place in a police station and will be delivered by a police officer or a community representative.

The caution is an opportunity for the young person and their parents to meet with the victim and anyone else who has been affected by the crime. Everyone will be given a chance to talk about the impact the crime has had on them.

There will be a signed written record of the meeting, with the young person agreeing to apologise, take part in work to make amends to the victim or community, or go to classes to address their offending behaviour.

The restorative caution will only stay on a criminal record for two-and-a-half years, unless further offending takes place. It is not a conviction.

Diversionary youth conference

A diversionary youth conference (DYC) is for cases where the PPS decides that a full conference with the victim should be offered.  It is organised by the Youth Justice Agency and managed by professionally trained conference co-ordinators.  

The conference is a meeting or a series of meetings, involving the young person, family members and in most cases, the victim or their representative.  The meetings provide a forum for discussion about the offence and usually result in a conference plan that can include arrangements for an apology, compensation, service for the community, restrictions on conduct or whereabouts, or involvement in programmes, for example, alcohol dependency.

The conference plan must be approved by the PPS.  If rejected, or the young person fails to go along with the approved plan, the PPS can refer the case to the court for formal adjudication.

Youth engagement clinics

In most cases, where the  PPS decides that a young person’s case can be dealt with outside the court system, the young person will be asked to go to a youth engagement clinic.

The aim of the clinic is to make sure that young people have all the information they need to help them decide what to do.

At the clinic the young person, their parent(s) or guardian(s) and solicitor will meet with youth justice workers from the Youth Justice Agency and the police. They will let the young person know what the PPS has decided in their case, what it means and explain the options available.

A solicitor can help guide the young person through the process and explain things like the crime they have been accused of and the evidence that can be used against them.  Legal aid will pay for the solicitor.

Youth court

If a young person commits an offence and the Public Prosecution Service refers the case to court, it will be heard at the youth court. However, even if a young person's case is sent to the youth court, it may recommend the offence(s) be dealt with outside of court.

If a young person is charged with a very serious offence they may have to appear in a Crown Court, rather than a youth court. This might happen if the case involves:

  • violent offences including murder, attempted murder, serious sexual offences and robbery
  • offences, that if the young person were an adult, the case could be heard in a Crown Court
  • cases sent to the Crown Court from youth courts for sentencing

The youth court is part of the magistrate's court and can be in the same building. It deals with all criminal cases involving young people under the age of 18. They are less formal than other courts and allow more participation by the young person and their family.

The youth court has a district judge (magisrate's court), who acts as chairperson, and two lay magistrates. The judge and the lay magistrates hear the evidence and make a judgment. Parents or guardians may sit near the child in the youth court as this may help them to become involved.

Prosecution and defence representatives may be there, as well as a probation officer, police officer, Youth Justice Agency representative, court staff and security officers. Everyone in the youth court is seated at the same level. The judge and lawyers don't wear robes or wigs. Police and custody staff don't normally wear uniforms.

The public cannot go to youth court but the victim of the crime can go to the hearing. If they do, they must make a request to the court before the hearing.

Youth courts are usually arranged so that children do not meet adults attending other criminal courts. Children attending the youth court cannot be named or identified in the media although there are some exceptions to this.

Court ordered sentences for young people

At youth court, a young person who has been found guilty can received any one of a number of court ordered sentences.

Absolute discharge

This happens when the court does not believe punishment is necessary and the offender is set free, even if they are found guilty.

Conditional discharge

The young person may be set free on the condition that they stay out of trouble for a set period of time, usually between six months and two years. If however they commit another offence during this time, the court can take into account the old offence as well as the new one.


This means paying money to the courts. The amount a young person can be fined depends on their age.

Deferred sentence

This is when the court gives a young person a sentence, but defers it for up to six months. If the young person stays out of trouble during this time or makes some effort to repair any damage to their victim, the court may review the case in a positive light.

Attendance Centre Order

The young person must go to an 'attendance centre', which is usually a Youth Justice Agency local office, for a period of between 12 and 24 hours. The hours will be split up over a couple of weeks into sessions of between oneand two hours each time. During this time, the young person will work with the Youth Justice Agency to improve their behaviour. Sessions will not interfere with school or work.

Reparation Order

These orders require the young person to make amends to their victim or the wider community by carrying out an agreed activity such as attending programmes to address their behaviour or by helping with a local charity. The order can be for a period of up to 24 hours. The Youth Justice Agency will work with the young person to complete this.

Community Responsibility Order

This is a type of community service. The Youth Justice Agency will work with the young person on a range of activities, such as helping out at a local charity, to help them understand their responsibility to the community and the impact of the offence on themselves and others. Sessions will normally be between two and four hours, for 20 to 40 hours in total, and will not interfere with school or work.

Community Service Order

This order may be given to young people over 16 years of age who have committed a crime that may alternatively be punished with custody. The young person will do unpaid work in the community for a period of between 40 hours and 240 hours.

Probation Order

This order means that the young person will have a probation officer looking after them for a period of between six months and three years. During this time the probation officer will work closely with the young person to help prevent them getting into trouble again.

Youth Conference Order

This order requires young people to go to a youth conference where they get the chance to understand what they have done and make amends to their victims. It also helps young people to take steps to stop getting involved in future crime. Young people must admit their guilt before they can be sentenced to a youth conference order. If the terms of a youth conference order are breached the case will be referred back to court.

Juvenile Justice Centre Order

This order will send the young person to custody in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor. This is usually for a period of six months but can be for up to two years. Half of the time is spent in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre with the remaining half spent under supervision in the community.

Custodial sentences for serious offences

On rare occasions, a young person can be detained for longer than two years. This will be for a serious crime or if the judge considers that they may be a danger to the community because of the serious violent or sexual nature of the offence.

Electronic tagging

A court can order a young person to be electronically monitored or "tagged" as part of their Youth Conference Order, Juvenile Justice Centre Order or as part of their bail conditions. Tagging will place the young person under curfew for part of the day. The curfew is usually between two and 12 hours per day for a minimum of 14 days. Electronic tagging can help protect the public protection as tagged offenders are more closely supervised and monitored within the community.

Youth conferences

A youth conference is a meeting between the young person who offended, their family, their victim and the police. It gives offenders a chance to understand the affects of what they have done and a chance to make up for it. It also gives victims a chance to get answers to their questions and tell an offender how they have been affected by the crime.

Everyone at the youth conference will have a chance to speak. A youth conference co-ordinator from the Youth Justice Agency will host the conference and explain the process to everyone before the conference goes ahead.

The aim of the conference is to agree an action plan for the young person who offended in a bid to prevent further offending and make amends to the victim. This can include:

  • an apology to the victim of the crime
  • participation in activities to address offending behaviour
  • restricting what the offender does and where they go, which can include electronic tagging
  • payment to the victim, not more than the cost of replacing or repairing any property taken, destroyed or damaged by the offender
  • the offender making up for the offence to the victim, or to the whole community
  • if the offender is 16 years or older they can agree to unpaid work or service in the community

The Youth Conference co-ordinator will guide participants through the process. The co-ordinator and other Youth Justice Agency staff will work with the young person to make sure they do what they have agreed to in the action plan.

The action plan must be approved by the Public Prosecution Service or the court. If the young person does not agree to complete the plan they may be returned to court and may face custody at Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre.

Victims don’t have to go to the youth conference if they don't want to. They can choose to send someone else, such as a friend or relative to speak on their behalf. Arrangements can also be made for the victim to take part via videolink or they may write a letter explaining how they have been affected by the crime which will be read out at the conference.

Custody for young people

If a young person appears in court and is found guilty of an offence or remanded to custody they could be sent to a secure facility called Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor.

Young people can be sent to Woodlands if they are between 10 and 17 years old inclusive, charged with an offence and the judge remands them in custody until their next court appearance. The judge may decide to remand a young person if there is a risk that they will:

  • run away
  • harm themselves or others
  • be a threat to public order
  • interfere with or threaten witnesses
  • commit further offences

Custody and the Police and Criminal Evidence Order

Sometimes the police may place a young person into custody in Woodlands under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order (PACE). This means they have been arrested and charged but Woodlands is considered the safest place for them to stay until a court hearing can be arranged.

Sentenced at court

The Juvenile Justice Centre Order (JJCO) is the main custodial sentence for young people aged between 10 and 17. It is normally for a period of six months but can be for up to two years. Half of the sentence is served in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre with the remaining half served under supervision in the community.

If a young person under the age of 18 is found guilty of the most serious crimes, like murder and serious assaults, the court may decide to keep them at Woodlands for longer.

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