In the sixth blog reflecting on the observations of our #JusticeSolutions tour of New Zealand, Jesuit Social Services’ General Manager – Justice Programs DANIEL CLEMENTS reflects on his day at Auckland’s Pasifika Court and the positive benefits of taking young people out of the traditional court system.
When you walk into the Pasifika Court in Auckland, there’s no question that this is a different sort of justice space – different even to the alternative justice settings that we have in Victoria though it resonates with our Koori Courts.
Pasifika Courts work within the mainstream legal structure in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The same laws and consequences apply as in the mainstream Youth Court. However, the way they do it – as with our own Koori Court – is very different, and very moving to be able to witness as part of our #JusticeSolutions tour.
The Court was set up for the day in a community hall behind a church in suburban Auckland.
In addition to the police prosecutors, the young person’s lawyer and a Lay Advocate, Elders from diverse Pacific Island communities are active participants in the Court –today there are 10 of them present. Their presence fundamentally shifts the dynamic in the room, as does the space itself, with the presiding judge seated as part of a semi-circle and at the same level as all other stakeholders.
Simple colourful cloths cover the tables –a special cloth for the table where the victims sit and a large traditional woven mat that acts as a centrepiece on the floor around which all other stakeholders sit.
As with the Rangatahi Courts, which are held on marae and follow Maori cultural processes, the Pasifika Courts are designed to help Pasifika young people, who like young Maori people, are over-represented in the criminal justice system in New Zealand.
They are also designed to better involve families and communities in the youth justice process.
Around seven per cent of New Zealand’s population identify with one or more Pasifika groups, including Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue.
On arrival at the Court, I was welcomed by the Court Registrar who, together with a Court Registry Officer, was setting up for the day in the community hall. As they worked, they spoke about the power of the Court and the positive benefits of taking young people out of traditional, more adversarial mainstream courts into this environment. They also highlight the benefits of having community present and emphasised the importance of culture and identity as central to the operations of the Court.
One of the Community Elders joined us and said: “The Court is working with the young person, not just doing justice to them. It gives them an opportunity to have a voice.”
That was underscored later in the case of one young person whose matters were heard on the day.
The conversational nature of the hearing didn’t detract in any way from the seriousness of the matters heard and Judge Ida Malosi, New Zealand’s first female Pasifika Judge, was at pains to impress upon the young person the significance of their offending, the risks it posed to community and the negative impact on family.
The lighter tone clearly helped the young person engage with the Court.
After two hours listening to the evidence, engaging in conversation with family and the young person and listening carefully to the advice of the police prosecutor and legal support, Judge Malosi looked up from her notes, smiled at the young man, who was flanked by his Lay Advocate and social worker, and announced: “You have no business here, you are supported by your family and you know who you are!”
She then called on the Community Elder who spoke to the family and the young person in their community language and called on each of the family members to share with the Elders and the Court before requesting the parish priest join them and lead them in prayer.
Finally, turning to the police prosecutor and the young person’s lawyer, Judge Malosi said: “Now where’s the finish line and how are we going to get there?”
Also hanging in the air on the day was the reality that if this young man offends again before July, he will automatically move into the adult justice jurisdiction.
New Zealand only recently amended its legislation to ensure 17 year old children will not go into the adult system until they are 18, although they still will if they are charged with serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, sexual assault and aggravated robbery.
One of the Community Elders was surprised when I spoke about Victoria’s unique Dual Track system and the long standing bipartisan approach in Victoria to keeping vulnerable young people out of the adult criminal justice system – both of which are regrettably now eroded as a result of regressive changes to legislation in recent years.
As the case concluded in the Pacifika Court, the Judge spoke clearly to the young person about what she was taking into account in her considerations about him: the risk to community balanced with the positive steps he was taking to change his life, not least of which was working full time and providing additional financial support for the family.
But central to Judge Malosi’s summation were the key points of identity and family.
“Lift up your eyes and see what is possible,” she urged him.