Children and the criminal justice system
What happens if I am accused of breaking the law?
If you're accused of breaking the law when you are under 18, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be sent to court to be dealt with by a magistrate.
The police will want to speak to you if they have information that you may be involved in a crime. First, the police will arrange with you or parents/carer to come to the police station for an interview. This will be recorded. If the crime is serious or you have been in trouble before, the police may arrest you instead.
Speaking to the police
If the police want to talk to you about an offence don't panic! Experienced lawyers can help you. Call the Youth Legal Advice Hotline on 1800 LAQ LAQ (1800 527 527).
If you are arrested the police must contact Legal Aid Queensland to tell us you have been arrested. This is the law.
You should not answer any of the police officer’s questions until you have spoken to a lawyer. Lawyers are available on the Youth Legal Advice Hotline every day between 8am and 9pm and the hotline operates continuously from 8am Friday until 5pm Sunday. This is a free service, and your information will be kept private.
Before you answer any questions, you should ask the police to contact the Youth Legal Advice Hotline so that legal advice can be organised for you. Remember that anything you tell the police can be used against you later in court.
What can happen to me if the police want to talk to me about a crime?
After the police speak to you, they may decide not to take any more action. This might be because they do not think you committed the offence/s, or there is not enough evidence to charge you with a crime.
If the police decide there is enough proof that you have committed a crime, they can either:
- divert you
- charge you with a crime and send you to a Childrens Court.
What do you mean by “divert”?
This is an action the police can take that means you don’t have to go to court. It’s called a diversion.
The diversions that Queensland police use are:
In deciding what to do, the police must consider:
- the type of crime you have committed
- any other crimes you have committed
- whether you have been diverted for other crimes.
Get legal advice before admitting that you're guilty of an offence. Even if you admit that you committed the offence, the police may decide that a diversionary option is not appropriate and send you to court instead.
Taking 'no action'
The police may take no action for a first or minor offence.
A caution is when the police officer gives you a formal warning instead of charging you. If they’ve given you a caution, then the matter is finished.
As part of the cautioning process:
- you tell the police that you committed a crime (admit your guilt) and agree to be cautioned
- a support person is present
- you get a notice saying you have been cautioned.
A caution may involve writing an apology to the victim.
A caution will not form part of your criminal history and can only be disclosed in a few circumstances.
Restorative justice process
Police may ask Youth Justice to organise a conference between you and the victim of your crime.
This is usually a meeting between you and the people most affected by the crime you committed (the victim/s) to talk about:
- what happened
- the effects of the crime
- repairing the harm you caused them.
If the meeting goes ahead, the case against you will be finalised and your crime will not appear on your criminal history. People who can attend the meeting include you and your carer or parents, a police officer, the victims of the crime and the person who organises the meeting.
If you have committed a minor drug crime the police may decide to send you to a drug information session rather than charging you and bringing you before court.
The police will give you details of a drug and alcohol education service and tell you when and where you need to attend.
If you go to the information session, then proceedings against you are finalised and you cannot be brought before the court for that offence.
The offence will not appear on your criminal history if you attend the information session.
Graffiti removal process
If you have admitted a graffiti crime, then the police can refer you to Youth Justice so you can take part in a program that removes graffiti from public and private property.
You can only be referred to a graffiti removal program if you are 12 or older.
The maximum hours of the program are:
- if you are 12 years old – 5 hours
- if you are 13 or 14 years old – 10 hours
- if you are 15 years or older – 20 hours.
If you complete the program successfully then you will not have to go to court for the crime and it will not appear on your criminal history.
Being brought to court
If the offence you have been charged with happened before you turned 18 and you are not yet 19, you will have to go to the Childrens Court.
There are three ways the police can bring you before the Childrens Court. They may:
Notice to appear
A police officer gives you a notice to appear. The notice is a piece of paper that says what you have been charged with and the day and time you must appear in court. The police must give this to you privately—usually not at your school or workplace.
If you don't appear in court on the day the notice says you need to, a warrant can be issued for the police to arrest you to take you to court.
Complaint and summons
A police officer gives you a complaint and summons. It sets out the crime the police say you committed and when you must appear in court.
If you don't appear in court on the day you are summonsed, a warrant can be issued for the police to arrest you and take you to court.
Arrest and detention in custody
A police officer can arrest you and keep you in custody until you can be brought before a court.
A police officer can arrest you if they believe on reasonable grounds that it's necessary to:
- stop you breaking the law
- protect the community from your offending
- stop you committing another offence
- stop you from getting rid of evidence
- stop you from making up evidence
- make sure you appear at court.
If you're arrested and kept in custody, the police must bring you before a court as soon as reasonably possible so you can apply to the court for bail.
Will my parents find out if I am charged with an offence?
If you are arrested, given a notice to appear, or served with a complaint and summons, the police must tell your parents and the Department of Youth Justice, Employment. Small Business and Training.
If you go to court for a crime, your parents are expected to attend court with you. A magistrate will usually not decide your case unless a parent is present.
Going to court
Which court do I go to?
If the police have charged you with a crime, you must go to the Childrens Court and appear in front of a magistrate who will decide what happens to you.
If the police do not release you from custody (where you are being kept after being arrested) they will bring you to the court as soon as possible, usually the day after your arrest.
If you have not been held in custody by police, the police officer will tell you the date and time you must go to court (usually two or three weeks after you have been charged).
Will I need a lawyer?
Magistrates expect that children charged with crimes are legally represented in court. Every child (depending on the seriousness of the charge) is entitled to apply for legal aid funding, called a ‘grant’, which pays for a lawyer to represent you.
There are a few ways you can get a lawyer:
- Find a lawyer yourself. Many lawyers advertise they will be willing to take your case and help you to apply for a legal aid grant.
- Contact the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service or Legal Aid Queensland.
- Contact the Youth Legal Advice Hotline on 1800 527 527.
- See the duty lawyer who will be at court on the day you go. This is a free service.
What will my lawyer do?
Going to court can be scary and stressful, and the magistrate and police may use words you don’t understand. A lawyer will help you by explaining the legal process to you, looking at the evidence/proof against you, giving you legal advice, and talking on your behalf.
Even though your lawyer will advise you, it is your decision to plead guilty or not guilty. No one can take this right away from you including your parents, care givers, child safety officers or the police.
Applying for bail
If you are in custody your lawyer can apply to the Childrens Court magistrate for you to get bail.
Bail is a legal term for being let out of custody, and a “bail undertaking” is a legal form you must sign before being released. It is your signed promise to follow the bail conditions and turn up to court when you’re asked to. Bail will usually be given unless the law says the magistrate can’t grant you bail, or they are worried there’s a risk:
- you will not turn up to court when you need to
- you might commit further crimes
- you might commit a crime that would endanger someone
- you would interfere with witnesses including victims (for example, talk to/ threaten people involved or try to get them to change what they say in court).
When deciding this, the magistrate will consider:
- the seriousness of the alleged crime you are charged with
- your personal situation including if you go to school, if you are working, where you are living and who you are living with
- whether you have been in trouble with the police before (whether you have a criminal history)
- if you were already on bail when you allegedly committed another crime.
If the magistrate is worried you might not come to court or you may commit a crime while on bail, they may add conditions to your bail undertaking, instead of keeping you in custody.
These conditions could include:
- living at a particular address
- obeying a curfew (not being able to go out at night)
- reporting to a police station
- attending school
- not using drugs or alcohol
- visiting your local Youth Justice office and doing a bail program, which might include counselling, education and life skills.
If you do not follow your bail conditions, you can be charged with a crime called “breach of bail.”
If you do not go to court when you’re told to, the magistrate can issue a warrant for your arrest. This is a piece of paper that tells the police to arrest you and bring you back to court.
If you are charged with breach of bail or if a warrant is issued for your arrest, the magistrate may stop your bail. They may keep you in custody until your case is over.
Will my friends know I’m in trouble if I go to court?
Because you’re a child, there is a general rule that you can’t be identified by the media or anyone else.
People can usually watch what’s happening in the Childrens Court—called an ‘open’ court—but no one is allowed to release information that tells other people your identity (who you are).
The judge may order that the court be ‘closed’, so that only people involved in the case are allowed to be there.
The media and others are usually not allowed in the closed court, although rarely the magistrate may let the media attend. Even if the media is allowed to watch your case, they are not allowed to publish your photo or name or identify you in any other way.
Getting legal advice
You may need legal advice if you:
- have been asked to take part in a police interview
- have been charged with an offence
- are going to a youth justice conference
- are going to court.
Youth Legal Advice Hotline
Young people can call 1800 LAQ LAQ (1800 527 527) to talk to a lawyer and get free and confidential legal advice about:
- legal rights
- diversionary options
- getting legal representation
- being charged with an offence
- applying for legal aid
- concerns about talking to the police and
- other youth justice issues.
Call the Youth Legal Advice Hotline:
- Monday to Thursday 8am to 9pm or
- Friday 8am to Sunday 5pm (except for Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Day).
Unless a police officer knows the child has arranged for a lawyer to be present during questioning, or has spoken to a lawyer acting for the child, the police officer must:
- inform the child that a legal aid representative will be notified the child is being kept in custody for an offence
- as soon as it is reasonably possible (and before questioning starts), notify, or try to notify a legal aid representative that the child is in custody.
The following organisations may be able to give you legal advice.
- Youth Advocacy Centre has a community legal and social welfare service for young people aged up to 18 years.
- Lawmail is a legal advice service for young people giving free legal advice to people under 18 via email.
- YFS Legal gives legal information, advice and representation in criminal law matters to young people 25 years or younger.
- Community legal centres give legal advice on a range of topics.
- Queensland Law Society can refer you to a specialist private solicitor for advice or representation.
Disclaimer: This content is for general purposes only and not legal advice. If you have a legal problem, please contact us or speak to a lawyer. View our full disclaimer.
Last updated 23 October 2023
If you have a general question for Legal Aid Queensland, please use the general question form or call 1300 65 11 88, Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4.30pm.