Canadian law recognizes that young people lack the maturity and judgment normally expected of adults. The law provides that while youth should be held accountable for their actions, the focus should be on educating them as to their responsibilities toward their fellow citizens, and impressing upon them the importance of maintaining a civil society in which all people, including youth, can go about their lives in peace and safety. There is less emphasis on punishment and retribution than is the case for adults who break the law, and more on identifying and correcting the cause of the offending behavior.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act is the special law that applies to young people from the age of 12 to 18 who break any federal law, such as the Criminal Code of Canada , or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act . The Young Persons Offences Act is the special law that applies to youth who break provincial laws such as the Highway Traffic Act or Liquor Control Act. The Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador is designated as the Youth Court for the province, and Provincial Court judges are Youth Court judges.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act contains special provisions that apply when police, the courts and correctional officials are dealing with a youth suspected of, charged with or convicted of a criminal or other federal offence. Those special provisions include:
- Special rights for youth, over and above those described in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms , including the right to be represented by a lawyer, free of charge, even before and during a police interview; and, the right to be fully informed of their rights, and how to exercise them at any stage of proceedings.
- Special provisions ensuring that statements made by youth to people in authority cannot be used against them in court unless they have first been properly advised of their rights and understand that they do not have to say anything, and anything they do say may be used against them in court.
- Special provisions requiring parents to be promptly notified of matters involving their children, and where there is no parent involved with a child, provisions allowing another responsible adult to become involved at the request of the youth.
- Special provisions protecting the privacy of youth, and prohibiting the publication of their names.
- Special provisions concerning the records kept by police, courts and corrections concerning a youth, aimed at minimizing the number of people who have access to these records, and the length of time the records are kept.
- Special procedures to protect the rights of youth at every stage of proceedings, including after they have been sentenced.
- Special sentencing provisions and options for youth, aimed at ensuring that every attempt is made to rehabilitate youth without placing them in custody, except for the most serious offences, or where a youth has demonstrated an unwillingness to abide by community dispositions. These provisions also limit the length of sentences for youth.
- Procedural provisions concerning the sentencing process that allow the involvement of the victim of the offence, and teachers, social workers and health care professionals who work with the youth and his or her family.
- Special provisions that ensure that youthful offenders who are in custody are kept separate from adult offenders.
In St. John's there is a courtroom dedicated to youth matters, and a judge, Crown prosecutor and defence lawyer or Legal Aid duty counsel are always present when the court is sitting. In smaller centres, youth matters are not scheduled at the same time as adult matters. The Court is open to the public, but the identity of youth dealt with by the Court cannot be published or broadcast.