NSW Children’s Court President Shares His Insight

The President of the NSW Children’s Court Judge Peter Johnstone joined members at ACWA on March 30 to deliver an insightful presentation on ‘Emerging Trends and Issues in the NSW Children’s Court’.


His Honour noted during his presentation that the coverage of specialist magistrates is improving across regional areas of NSW, with 85 to 90 per cent of matters in the Care jurisdiction being heard by specialist magistrates. He told members that specialist magistrates are hearing up to 60 per cent of matters in the Children’s Court criminal jurisdiction.


Judge Johnstone has championed specialist magistrates, and has been supported in this by the NSW Upper House in the Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Protection, with a recommendation for three additional specialist magistrates to be appointed.


During his address, Judge Johnstone spoke about the reduction of juveniles in detention, saying there is a greater understanding by specialist magistrates of brain science, the development of the brain in adolescence and impacts of inter-generational trauma. Three juvenile detention centres in NSW have been closed and the average population of juveniles in detention has decreased from 430 to 230.


He also pointed out that the NSW Children’s Court now has the authority to put in place Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) against adults and other children for the protection of children, so that there do not have to be separate proceedings in the local Court.


His Honour also observed that the quality of casework and reports by NGO caseworkers overall is to be commended.


Speaking on the matter of two-year orders, he said these were appropriate where restoration was the Care Plan goal and parents were given intensive support during this period to make changes to ensure their children could safely be restored to their care. Where it was clear that parents would not be able to meet this threshold, it would be important for the matter to be brought back to Court before the two-year timeframe elapsed.


Judge Johnstone also stated that Section 82 and Section 76 Reports had improved, with an executive summary highlighting whether the placement is going well or whether there are issues in the placement, and references to relevant sections or annexures. Overall, he said, these reports are more succinct and the information is more relevant.


In the Q&A session that followed Judge Johnstone’s presentation, members noted there are still tensions in some matters between FACS and the NGOs, particularly in the variation/rescission of Care Orders (s90). Members raised concerns that if NGO evidence ran contrary to FACS in these matters, then that evidence may not be brought before the Court. This was confirmed by attending representatives of ACWA’s Member Legal Services Panel, Rebecca Harper  (Harpers Legal, Newcastle and Hunter Valley) and Robert Hosking (Hosking Legal, Wollongong).


Judge Johnstone confirmed that in these instances it would be important to advise the appointed Independent Legal Representative, who would normally be in contact with the NGO regarding their conversations with the child/children. He stipulated that, as the model litigant, FACS had an obligation to ensure that all relevant information was put before the Court and legal representatives, as officers of the Court, have that duty as well.


ACWA expresses our deepest thanks to Judge Johnstone for speaking with our members during this important time of sector change and for providing his important insight from the view of the NSW Children’s Court. We also appreciate the support of Rebecca Harper and Robert Hosking for sharing their expertise, and thank our members for their participation.


ACWA will be circulating the full version of Judge Johnstone’s presentation via email. In the meantime, visit our website to find out more about ACWA’s Member Legal Services Panel, which includes specialists in the child protection and civil law jurisdictions.


Photo: ACWA CEO Andrew McCallum, Robert Hosking (Hosking Legal), ACWA Deputy CEO Wendy Foote, Rebecca Harper (Harpers Legal) and Judge Peter Johnstone.