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FOCUS: Are children's Parish Hall Enquiries fit for purpose in 2021?

FOCUS: Are children's Parish Hall Enquiries fit for purpose in 2021?

Friday 17 December 2021

FOCUS: Are children's Parish Hall Enquiries fit for purpose in 2021?

Friday 17 December 2021

For more than 800 years, honorary police officers in Jersey’s 12 parishes have held Parish Hall Enquiries to deal with minor offences when the person admits their guilt.

They are voluntary, so individuals can opt for the legal route, but it has long been accepted that – to use common parlance – a solid ticking off from a Centenier with a firm “don’t let me see you here again” is far more preferable than going to court.

Their longevity is seen by many to prove their success and justify their relevance today: in a small island, words of caution, explanation, understanding or reassurance by a community ‘elder’ – however delivered – is indefinitely preferable to the more formal criminal justice route, which can prove difficult to escape once you’re on that journey.

Thousands of people have learned from their mistakes and sworn to themselves “never again” after an appearance at Parish Hall Enquiry, the system’s many supporters say.

But both the world and the island have changed significantly since the Middle Ages, so are they still fit for purpose?

The Children’s Commissioner, Deborah McMillan, has been looking into ‘PHEs’ to test their compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Jersey has signed up to.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

PHEs are held for all ages but her focus was on the way they deal with young people.

St Helier Town Hall

Pictured: Parish Hall Enquiries have long been regarded as an effective first step to keep people out of the more formal court system.

The Convention says a child has the right to get legal help and to be treated fairly if he or she has been accused of breaking the law.

In short, Mrs McMillan finds a lot of good in the system, but makes a number of recommendations which she says brings PHEs into line with the Convention.

The report was based on desk-based research, 20 interviews with ‘stakeholders’ involved, including Honorary Police, Probation Officers, lawyers and social workers, a survey of children, which had 271 responses, of which 44 were complete; and 13 follow-up interviews with young islanders aged 14-24.

90-95% successfully complete the process

The Commissioner found: “The interviewees noted that 90-95% of children who are diverted to PHE successfully complete the process and thus are able to leave their encounter with the Jersey child justice system without a criminal record, which was highly praised.

“However, for a very small minority of children, the PHE system was deemed by the interviewees as failing to provide the required solution.”

Mrs McMillan finds a lack of clarity in various areas including whether there is a permanent record kept after a PHE (there is, and it can be taken into account by courts if the person commits a similar offence) and the consistency of approach across the 12 parishes.

A need to modernise?

She concludes: “Crucially, those with closest links to the PHEs, including the Centeniers, social workers and children, while noting the solidity of the fundamentals of PHEs, mostly spoke of the need to modernise the system.

“The research conducted clearly indicates that PHEs are the only diversionary measure available to children in conflict with the criminal justice system in Jersey. 

“While there are many positive elements about the PHE system, there is also an urgent need to modernise this diversionary measure and to bring it in line with the obligations arising in respect of Jersey under the UNCRC. 

“However, it is crucial that such modernisation of PHEs is undertaken as a part of the overall child justice system assessment, noting that the ultimate success of any diversionary measure, including PHEs, also lies with effective early warning measures.”

Possible improvements

Her recommendations include:

  • a Probation Officer should always be present when a child or young person attends a PHE;

  • a good practice guide on managing conflicts of interest, which incorporates the views of a wide range of stakeholders, must be developed for Centeniers and other officials involved in PHEs. Centeniers should not preside over cases involving children or families who are known to them;

  • PHEs should be conducted on an appointment-based system, with appropriate time allowed for sessions, and with sessions that involve children or young people not continuing after 8pm. Consideration must also be given to the possibility of holding weekend PHEs;

  • adequate measures should be taken to ensure the privacy of children and young people who attend PHEs;

  • minimum standards should be set stipulating appropriate and acceptable timescales from the commencement of a PHE process (namely, the first point of contact with law) to its conclusion (the PHE itself);

  • access to independent legal support should be provided whenever requested or deemed necessary;

  • access to independent interpreters should be provided whenever requested or deemed necessary;

  • there must be a procedure that sets out the right to appeal the outcome of a PHE, and this must be explained as part of the PHE system;

  • a person defined as an ‘appropriate adult’ who accompanies a child or young person to a PHE must be subject to an identity check;

  • the record of a child or young person’s attendance at a PHE should be destroyed at a set time after the offence or at the point when they turn 18, whichever comes first;

  • a child or young person who attends a PHE should be given an adequate and timely opportunity to provide feedback on their experience, and, to this end, the complaints procedure should be reviewed to ensure that children and young people are able to access it.

Not everyone has accepted Mrs McMillan’s report fully.

Chief Probation Officer Mike Cutland has welcomed the report but rejected anecdotal evidence included in it that the PHE system is discriminatory against foreigners.

What did young people have to say?

“They need to be more compassionate and not see us just as teenagers causing trouble but as young people who need help to get to where we should be aiming to be.”

“The more you get arrested, the less you care about the things you are doing, it doesn’t change your ways.”

“We are guilty until proven innocent.”

“We get told off for being in groups, but we are just with our friends. If it was a group of adults the police wouldn’t do the same to them.”

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