The aim of the workshop is to allow the participating researchers from all Australian jurisdictions to meet and exchange ideas concerning their findings in order to achieve five major objectives: to review the research findings, to identify and prioritize the policy,to undertake the detailed planning for the scholarly outputs of the study,to develop a research dissemination strategy and to identify future research directions.

The Children’s Court is one of Australia’s key social institutions. It decides important social and legal issues that concern children and families in Australia. Children’s Courts perform two functions, namely, keeping parents accountable for their behaviour towards children and keeping children accountable for anti-social behaviour. These two functions correspond with the two structural units – the child protection and juvenile justice divisions – found in Australia’s Children’s Courts.

Some major differences exist among Australia’s six state and two territory jurisdictions especially with regard to court procedures and sentencing options. These reflect different historical, social, demographic, economic and political contexts, different ideologies and theoretical perspectives on parenting and crime and the evolving roles of the family, the community and government in contemporary society.

However, the State and Territory Children’s Courts also share many similarities including, for example, a growing volume of increasingly complex cases, frequent legislative changes and an adversarial approach to dealing with the ‘individualized’ or private expressions of the social problems that the cases which they process represent.

Confronted with constantly increasing caseloads and periodic outbreaks of vociferous community demands for courts to be more responsive to community views about child abuse and young offenders, both child protection and juvenile justice legislation has been the subject of a series of significant reforms throughout Australia during the last decade or so. No systematic research with a national focus, however, has been undertaken to date to assess these changes.

Workshop aims and objectives

This workshop proposal is conceived of as the penultimate phase of a larger national study of Australian Children’s Courts funded in 2009 by a two-year Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grant. The purpose of this national study is to examine the current status of Australian Children’s Courts, to identify the contemporary and future challenges they face from the perspective of judicial officers and other key stakeholders, to identify directions for reform and to assess the feasibility of the desired reforms.

The workshop will be held in late 2010 or early 2011. The aim of the workshop is to allow the participating researchers from all Australian jurisdictions to meet and exchange ideas concerning their findings in order to achieve five major objectives:

  • To review the research findings and conduct inter-jurisdictional comparisons.
  • To identify and prioritize the policy and, in turn, legislative implications of the findings.
  • To undertake the detailed planning for the scholarly outputs of the study – those dealing with each state/territory as well as those with a national focus.
  • To develop a research dissemination strategy
  • To identify future research directions.

The realization of these objectives will be facilitated by the participation and critical contributions to the deliberations of three experts on courts.

Rationale (diversity of themes)

It is envisaged that the proposed workshop will canvas a wider range of themes including, for example:

  • International developments and best practice models based on non-adversarial, welfare oriented and multidisciplinary perspectives.
  • Critical examination of principles and values that undergird Australian Children’s Courts and recent legislative amendments.
  • Feasibility of introducing alternative approaches to decision-making in the courts, e.g., enquiry-based, problem-solving courts etc.
  • Gaps and irregularities in the current system (e.g., the use of remand in response to homelessness).
  • Feasibility of extended judicial supervision of cases.
  • Range and adequacy of sentencing options, support services and rehabilitation programmes.
  • Feasibility of separate courts for adolescents.
  • Addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous children, youth and families.
Participants (diversity of opinions)

The proposed workshop will be attended by all Chief Investigators (CI’s). There are 16 CI’s involved in the study — two from each state/territory plus one additional investigator from the NSW. The national research team includes one Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and three Early Career Researchers (ECR’s). The national team of CI’s includes experts in juvenile justice and child protection drawn from such disciplines as sociology, law, criminology, psychology and social work.

Other participants will include:

  1. The chair of the project’s National Research Advisory Committee, Professor Arie Freiberg, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Monash University,
  2. Professor Barry Feld, an internationally-renowned expert on Children’s Courts from the University of Minnesota who will be in Australia at the time, and
  3. Dr Marie Connolly from the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, New Zealand.

The role of these other participants will be to engage with the researchers and offer constructive criticisms of the research findings and their implications.

The experiences of the initial stages of the project (which included the development of eight jurisdictional profiles and the identification of common issues to be canvassed during data collection) point to the prospect of vigorous discussion at the workshop given the diversity of perspectives and opinions among the CI’s and the members of the eight State/Territory Reference Groups that have been established to inform and facilitate the research.