VLRC calls for support person scheme

A statewide scheme for supporting young people in police custody with trained volunteers should be introduced, according to a report released today by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

The volunteers would act as a support person if the parent or guardian of the young person in custody was not able to attend the police interview.

The Crimes Act currently directs police in Victoria to interview a person under 18 in custody only if there is a parent or guardian present or, if they are unavailable, with an ‘independent person’ present.

Chairperson of the Commission, Professor Neil Rees said that the Crimes Act does not indicate who is an independent person and how the police should choose such a person, it does not describe their role, and it does not explain the consequences of interviewing a young person without a parent, guardian or independent person present.

“While the Crimes Act recognises that young people are vulnerable and their rights need to be protected, the lack of clarity in the Act makes it difficult for everyone involved to have a shared understanding of the rules that must be followed when police interview a young person in custody“ Professor Rees said.

“Clearly outlining the role of the support person and the consequences of either not having a support person, or the support person not fulfilling their role appropriately, would help both young people and the police, and be far preferable to fighting about these matters in court” he said.

Also speaking at the launch was former Supreme Court Judge and Director of Public Prosecutions, the Hon John Coldrey QC. When DPP in the 1980s, Mr Coldrey chaired the committee which recommended that the law should formally recognise that vulnerable people need support in police interviews. The report also led to the current practice of police recording all interviews—both to protect the rights of the person and the police conducting the interviews.

Mr Coldrey said it that it was important to balance the need to protect individuals’ rights with the need to convict the guilty.

The Commission provides 24 recommendations in the report including:

  • building on the successful Youth Referral and Independent Persons Program (YRIPP) pilot program and establishing the scheme statewide with a pool of trained people
  • having the legislation clearly describe the role of the person to inform young people of their legal rights and supporting them when they choose to exercise those rights
  • changing the name from ‘independent person’ to ‘support person’ to better indicate the nature of the role, and
  • clearly indicating the consequences of failing to comply with the requirement that a young person be supported by a parent, guardian or support person during police questioning. 

The Commission’s report was the result of a community law reform project, where the Commission examines and makes recommendations about matters that are of general community concern, but do not involve major legal change. The project was a suggestion from members of YRIPP, the Centre for Multicultural Youth and the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria.

The Commission conducted 33 consultations and received 24 submissions in response to the background paper on the issue.

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