Child Justice Act to protect SA's children

Thursday, May 28, 2009

As Child Protection week draws to a close, Lawrence Ngoveni and Luyanda Makapela, take a look at the Child Justice Act which was signed into law earlier this month.

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe signed the Child Justice Act (Act No 75 of 2008) on 14 May 2009. The Act will come into operation on 1 April 2010.

This piece of legislation will work towards improving service delivery to children in courts and the justice environment as a whole.

Among its main objectives, the Act seeks to establish a criminal justice system for children who are in conflict with the law or are accused of committing criminal offences.

It will further ensure that children's cases are managed in a rights-based approach and assists children in conflict with the law to turn their lives around and become productive members of society.

The Act provides specific procedures to be applicable for children who have allegedly committed crimes. They will not be handled in terms of the normal criminal law. For instance, a preliminary inquiry will be done before the child's first court appearance, and takes place within 48 hours of arrest.

A preliminary inquiry is also more inquisitorial rather than adversarial. It is a process in which the magistrate, child, his/her parents, guardians or caregivers, prosecutor, probation officer, arresting officer and legal aid attorney gather to examine the factors that may have influenced the child to commit the crime concerned.

The parties then determine ways of assisting the child to acknowledge that he/she did wrong; and to provide the necessary support to the child concerned.

This, in turn, assists in addressing the original crime so that the child does not commit the same criminal offence or act of violence again.

In this way, children are diverted away from the mainstream criminal justice system.

In a case where the child concerned admits wrong-doing and where the child requires assistance, the magistrate may make an order that, instead of the normal prosecutorial system, the child should attend a rehabilitation programme.

During this programme, the children are exposed to life skills, anger management and rehabilitation from substance abuse as a way of addressing the problems that led the child to committing such crimes.

The child's compliance with the diversion order will be monitored and reported back to court.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development sees the diversion of these minor offences involving children to have long term benefits not only for children but for the country as a whole.

These diversions allow for a criminal justice system that caters for the needs and rights of children.

To attest to this, the Act allows for the consideration of the child's background and personal or family circumstances while ensuring that the individual needs and circumstances of certain children in trouble with the law are assessed.

The Act also provides a wide range of sentencing options that are specifically suited to the needs of the children.

On the whole, it balances the rights and responsibilities of the child offender, the victim and the community.

This has resulted in that, for the first time in legislation, the Act makes provision for the consideration of the impact of the offences on the victim by means of a victim impact statement that is delivered by the victim or someone authorised by the victim.

This statement serves as a reflection of physical, psychological, social, financial, or any other consequences of the offence for the victim.

The provision further allows for a healing and conciliatory process to happen while making it easier to facilitate the rehabilitation and integration of the child offender into society.

The Department anticipates that effective rehabilitation and integration will minimise the stigma that is often attached to previous offenders or people with criminal records.

This will ensure that children are accepted back into communities and developed into confident, responsible and mature young men and women, who will participate in building the country.

As South Africa is a member of the United Nations (UN), the implementation of the Child Justice Act will enhance the country's participation in the promotion of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

For the South African government, it is encouraging to note that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has also endorsed the Act and views it as a significant milestone in protecting the interests of children in South Africa.

This further builds public confidence in the department as the Child Justice Act will reduce the level of crime committed by children countrywide.

As South African prepares to host two major football tournaments, the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2010 FIFA World Cup, it is every South African's responsibility to also ensure that children are safe from abuse, child trafficking and exploitation in the form of prostitution, forced labour and muti-related crimes.

Child Protection Week, which is held from 25 to 31 May, is an annual campaign to promote partnerships between all sectors of society to improve the living conditions of vulnerable children and their families.

People who would like to report abuse can call Crime Stop on 08600 10 111, Childline on 0800 055 555 or the Department of Social Development on 0800 60 10 11.