Trial Confirms Jurisdiction, Value Of Samoa’s Youth Court

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First case held in Court sees defendants freed

By Sophie Budvietas

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Nov. 11, 2014) – A landmark hearing has cemented the importance of the Youth Court in Samoa.

For the first time in its seven-year existence, the Youth Court saw a trial for two youths.

The hearing was finally closed last Monday – with both young defendants walking free. Because of their ages, the names of the defendants are withheld.

In the past, youths who were up on charges were often tried before the Supreme Court.

This particular case was almost no exception. Before it even reached trial, charges were laid in the Supreme Court and the District Court before it was decided the defendants should face the Youth Court.

The trial judge dismissed the charges. However, the Attorney General’s Office was unhappy with this ruling so the prosecutors appealed it not once, but twice - both times having their claims dismissed.

Defence lawyer, Su’a Hellene Wallwork, who was appointed to represent the young defendant through Legal Aid, said the year-long process was not easy.

"It was difficult," she said.

"Because I have seen judgements that have come out from the Supreme Court of judgements against young people being dealt with from the Supreme Court even after they Young Offenders Act came into place.

"(So) we went through a lot of hoops, the police (public prosecutors) first filed charges against these young people in the Supreme Court, in the District Court, then back to the Supreme Court.

"Even after counsels became involved they were still trying to push the matter into the Supreme Court.

"We ended up having a hearing as to which court the trial should be heard in whether it’s the Youth Court or the Supreme Court."

Su’a said thankfully the Youth Court judge was very proactive and found that it should be held in there.

"And rightly so," she said.

However, Su’a said the case did not end there. Once the charges were dropped the prosecution appealed both the trial finding and the jurisdictional judgement – that is the decision to hold the trial in the Youth Court.

"Both judgements got appealed to the Supreme Court and then also to the Court of Appeal," she said.

Both were dismissed, on the grounds of a lack of evidence.

It should be noted here that according to the Young Offender’s Act 2007, if the Youth Court finds in favour of the defendant this ruling cannot be appealed by the prosecution.

Returning to this case, Su’a said the decision of the Appellate Court validated the existence of the Youth Court.

"The significance of a win in the Court of Appeal is that it is a win for youth justice," she said.

"Now we have had the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal confirm the special jurisdiction or special status of the Youth Court."

"It’s important because it confirms the special status of the Youth Court.

"The Youth Court is where young people are tried and that is where it ends unless a young person wants to appeal (the verdict).

"But otherwise, if they are acquitted in the youth court that is the end of it they get tried once, they don’t get appealed the police don't get to appeal an acquittal."

So what is the importance of having a Youth Court?

"It is important in any jurisdiction in any country to have a special court for young people because they are different (to adults)," said Su’a.

"They are not as aware of their rights as adults are, although a lot adults probably aren’t aware either, but they just need better projection.

"The objective of the Youth Court is to rehabilitate rather than punish young people.

"So that is why they focus isn’t so much on the penalty for the offence itself, the focus is on the young person, why have they come here, what can we do.

"The system as a whole – what can we do to get this person back on the right track because once they become adults it is harder to get them back on the right track.

"But while they are young people the court has a role, the police have a role, probation have a role, defence councils all have a role once they’re involved in the youth court to help that particular youth.

"The young offenders Act is quite clear on this it is only as a last resort that a young person will be locked up.

"So you have to explore all options first, exhaust them all, as frustrating as that can be sometimes, you have to exhaust all those options before you then turn to a custodial sentence."’

She said the marked difference between the Youth Court and the Criminal Court is that the former takes a more inclusive approach to justice once the young person – aged between 10 and 17 – is charged under the Young Offenders Act.

"The Young Offenders Act sets out the procedure for prosecuting young people," she said.

"It is a more inclusive approach to trying young people instead of just the young defendants being put in the dock to answer all the charges.

"The Youth Court is supposed to involve the young person’s family - they can be part of it, the hearing is supposed to be held in Samoan…so that the young person understands everything that is being said and the Youth Court judge can set any procedure that he or she thinks is appropriate for that particular hearing, so they have got the powers under the Act.

"So it is set up to cater to young people, it is not supposed to be as formal a court as the Supreme Court Criminal procedures, which is the way it should be when dealing with young people and young people are defined in the Act as being aged from 10 to 17."Su’a said one of the key differences, as mentioned above is that once the Court rules in favour of the defendant the prosecution cannot appeal this decision.

"It was set up especially for young people and it operates differently to adult criminal courts," she said.

"The key thing that has become clear is that a young person can only be tried once and that is in the Youth Court, the Police (prosecutors) can’t appeal that."

She said, as the Court aims to rehabilitate the youth, she believes this is the right way to go. "I hope that this case doesn't result in a change in legislation because that would be a step backwards in terms of youth justice," she said.

"So I am hoping the legislation doesn’t change because of the judgement that has come out, which now confirms that the police cant appeal the Youth Court.

Because young people really should only be tried once, the objective of the youth court is to rehabilitate, reintegrate our young people so that they don't end up in adult criminal courts, you know nip it in the bud at that stage."

Su’a said it was important that the Youth were aware of their rights afforded to them under the Act."Well it is probably more important that youth are aware of their rights when they are first approached by the police," she said. "For example a young person shouldn’t just be charged straight up once there is a complaint that is brought in about them.

"The police should be more proactive finding out what happened, giving them a warning you know starting to set up a record of a young person before they actually get to the stage of charging them.

"But some of these young people coming through are being charged at the first complaint and then thrown into the justice system and left to fend for themselves."

In addition to this, Su’a said when a young offender is taken by the police they don't have to say anything to the police unless they have a family member there.

"The police are not allowed to interview them without a family member being present," she said.

"And hopefully the family member can advise the young person what is right or what is appropriate to say in that circumstance.

"If they can afford it get a lawyer, if not then the court will genrally assign a legal "Thankfully the Young Offenders Act allows every young person in the Youth Court to be legally aided so they are entitled to legal representation paid for by legal aid."

"And I hope that is applying to every young person in the youth court, but I don’t know."

"From what I have seen they are being all referred to legally aided lawyers."

She said another right afforded to young people is that the defendant cannot be held in custody with adults.

"If they are held in custody they should be separated from adult offenders," she said.

"The best way to do that is to take them out to Olomanu Juvenile Centre."

"But I think in some cases, because Olomanu is so far out and if a young person is going through the court system hasn’t been committed for trial yet if they are just on remand and bought in for mention every week or something then it might be easier for police to keep them out a Taifigata."

"Then if that is to be the case then they have to have a separate area to keep young people in."

She noted that this was a right that was not afforded her client.

"My client had been locked up in the Pasima for a number of weeks," she said.

"He was 15 when he was locked up and that happened more than once, he was locked up there more than once even after the court ordered that he be taken to Olumanu, the police were locking him up in Tafigata."

"That is just unacceptable in any society for a young person to be treated that way."

She said despite this, she has noticed a marked change in the overall system over the past year.

"I have seen a lot of positive changes in the one year which is very encouraging," she said.

"I have noticed in the last year since this case went to trial there has been a lot of improvement in the approach taken by the Youth Court, the Probation Office, the Police even the Youth Court prosecutors in how they are approaching young people," she said.

"There is more acceptance of the Young Offenders Act and the principles that are in it and they are starting to respect those principals and treat young people accordingly."

"It seems to be there are prosecutors from the Attorney’s General office who are specialising in the Youth Court, which is why we are now seeing this improvement in their approach to young people."

"Judge Tuatagaloa and Judge Vaai in the Youth Court became very active as Youth Court Judges last year."

"It was then the matters started staying in the Youth Court rather than being pushed up to the Supreme Court."

"So there has been a lot of learning for everyone involved, myself included, in the last year."

Su’a said she hopes to see this awareness continue.

"I am looking forward to seeing the progress of youth justice in Samoa now that we have got an active judiciary we have," she said.

"(There is) more jurisprudence coming out from the courts."

"Hopefully (this will) raise more awareness with young people about their rights when dealing with police and hopefully police respect (our) young people."

"Young people have rights, they are somebody’s son somebody’s brother. You still want to make sure that if you had a brother that ended up in that situation that the police would treat them in a respectable manner as they should."

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