Supporting young people in police interviews

 

Young people are generally disadvantaged when it comes to understanding and exercising their rights. Particularly, this can be the case in situations where a young person is being interviewed by police about an alleged offence.

Support persons for young people who are being interviewed by police play an important role. Not only can they alert a young person about his or her rights but they can also check that police act within their powers of investigation and questioning.

For newly arrived migrant youth, having a support person during a police interview can make a significant difference in the overall police investigation and questioning process.

While limited English proficiency can significantly impair a newly arrived youth’s understanding of police investigation processes, new societal and cultural norms, values and expectations further compound the challenges faced by migrant youth engaged in the justice system.

In your role as a community or youth worker it is possible that police may contact you because a young person they have arrested has suggested you as a support person or an appropriate adult. You may also be contacted by police if your organisation works with young people and can provide assistance in contacting parents or an appropriate adult.

Importantly, a support person does not need an in depth knowledge of the law to be effective in this role. A good understanding of the rights of young people  and police powers is often sufficient to provide that first line of support to a young person in custody. But please remember not to attempt to give legal advice or answer questions by a young person relating to charges or sentencing if you are not qualified to do so.

Young people under 18 years of age are considered ‘vulnerable persons’ and so they have a right to have a support person or an appropriate adult present during any investigative procedure such as police questioning or search. Generally, young people who are over 16 years but under18 years of age can choose who they would like to have as a support person.

Because statements made by young people under 18 in the absence of an appropriate adult may not be admissible in court, police may require the presence of an adult to conduct an interview. This is also the case for diverting young people away from the court system by way of a caution (formal or informal) or family conference requiring the young person to admit to the offence in the presence of an appropriate adult.

Rights of minors at the police station

If you have been contacted by police to attend a police station as a support person it is important that you understand the rights of minors. These include the rights to:

 

  • know what they have been arrested for or if they have been arrested at all;
  • talk to their support person in private;
  • obtain legal advice;
  • have an interpreter;
  • remain silent and not to answer questions or sign statements beyond those questions relating to name and address (For exceptions to this rule see giving name and address);
  • end a police interview at any time.

 

In the case where an Aborigine under 18 is questioned about a serious offence, a parent, guardian or Aboriginal field officer must be present whenever possible.

The right to remain silent

 

The right not to take part in an interview or to remain silent is one of the most important rights of young people. Apart from providing name and address in most cases, a minor can never be obliged or pressured into answering any questions relating to an offence even in the presence of a support person or a lawyer.

The right to legal advice

The right to legal advice is also a key right which must be afforded to anyone charged with an offence. Support persons should help young people under 18 obtain legal advice by calling the Legal Services Commission’s free legal help line on 1300 366 424 or a private lawyer.

In the event that you can’t get in contact with the legal help line or a private lawyer, you may be able to explain to the young person the right to remain silent. Only provide basic information about cautions, family conferencing and court processes if you understand these well. For further information see Juvenile Justice System. In the event of a serious offence after 5pm and before 9am there is an after hours number for the Legal Services Commission lawyer on call which all police stations have access to.

At the police station

A checklist of things you should do when you arrive at a police station include:

  • ask the police officer to allow you to speak to the young person in private;
  • if you do not know the young person, introduce yourself and explain your role and how you plan to provide support;
  • ask the police if the young person is under arrest. If this is the case, ask what for;
  • make sure that the young person understands his or her right to remain silent;
  • alert the police about any relevant issues such as disability, English proficiency, need for an interpreter, whether the young person has arrived in Australia as an unaccompanied minor, etc.
  • help in contacting a relative or an appropriate person. This is particularly important when police require someone to sign a young person under 18 out on bail;
  • check whether the young person has had any legal advice. If not, then assist the young person in making a call to the Legal Services Commission’s free legal help line on 1300 366 424 or a private lawyer (remember that private lawyers may charge a fee).

 

What about if I can’t go to the police station?

Young people have a right to speak to a support person by telephone from the police station and in private, where practicable. The police have to assist in facilitating the phone call.

You can still provide support over the phone by explaining the young person’s rights, helping with obtaining legal advice, making the police aware of any concerns you may have, contacting parents, relatives or an appropriate adult to attend the police station.

Police interview

A minor has the same rights as an adult not to answer certain questions by police. This means that a young person must tell the police his or her name and address but does not have to answer questions about the alleged offence.

It is very important that legal advice is obtained before a police interview takes place.

If you decide to sit in a police interview you should be aware that statements made by the young person in your presence may be used against him or her in court. Do not however be discouraged by this as your presence may make the interview less intimidating and may ensure that police conduct the interview in a fair and respectful manner.

Always take notes of what is being said and remember that you may be asked to give evidence in court if the need to clarify statements made inside or outside the interview room arises.

Also remember that a minor has the right to remain silent and does not have to participate in an interview. One aspect of your role is to tell the police that the young person does not want to participate if this is the case.

It must be noted however, that where no support person is present, a magistrate may still decide to allow a young person statements to be used in court.

Things to remember during an interview include:

  • taking notes;
  • if you think the young person does not understand a question or is being pressured to answer questions against his or her will, you may ask the police to reframe the question or remind the young person about the right to remain silent. While police cannot stop you from intervening, please be mindful of doing so in a tactful and sensible manner to avoid conflict. Once again, it is very important that the young person really understands the right not to answer questions. Many people (not just youth) will say they understand it but may, against their own interests, answer questions almost as if they feel compelled to;
  • a young person has a right to end the interview at anytime. You may ask the police officer to finish the interview;
  • if you think police have conducted the interview inappropriately, made threats or tried to influence the young person, make a note of the police officer’s name and ID and have your comments recorded by the senior police officer;
  • if the interview is recorded you can ask for a copy. However, this does not mean that you will get a copy immediately after the conclusion of the interview as there are certain protocols associated with obtaining recordings of police interviews.

Lawyers

If a lawyer attends the police station, it may be appropriate for you to talk to the lawyer to make sure that the young person has understood the process and also to clarify your role.

What happens after the interview?

After an interview a young person may be released and told to come back at a later day for a caution. If the young person is required to go to court, a court attendance notice will be issued by police. A summons is also sent by mail a few weeks later.

If the police lay charges, the young person may be released on bail. Where bail is not granted, the youth is detained separately from adult prisoners. They are to be held in a juvenile detention centre until the matter can next be heard by the Youth Court.

You can find more detailed information about children and the law in our Law Handbook online.

If you are interested in discussing a training session on this particular topic, please contact one of our education officers.


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