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Criminal Law

Find out what your rights are regarding when you can be searched, interviewed or arrested by police, when you can be convicted of a criminal offence and how you can get a criminal record.

When can I be charged with a crime and convicted?

You cannot be charged with a criminal offence until you are 10 years old.  Children under 10 are not seen as mature enough to commit criminal offences. 

If you are between 10 and 14 years you may be responsible for offences you commit.    If you are charged with a crime at this age it must be proved in court that you knew what you did was ‘seriously wrong’ at the time you did it, and not just ‘naughty’.

Any young person aged 10 to 14 who gets in trouble with the police should get legal advice, as they may have a defence if they did not fully understand the consequences of what they did.
Once you turn 14 you will be responsible for any offence that you commit. 

*** Just because you commit a crime, doesn’t mean you will be charged for it. The police have other options they can take, including giving you a warning, caution or sending you to a conference.  For more information about this, please check out our pages on Youth Justice. ***

What happens if I am charged with a crime?

A ‘charge’ means the police believe you have broken the law, and they outline what they think you did and where and when you did it.
If a police officer reasonably suspects (definition below) you are committing or have committed a crime, then you may be charged on the spot and given a ‘Court Attendance Notice’  which tells you when your case will be heard in Court.  In very rare cases you might be arrested and then give you a court attendance notice, but this is very unlikely unless you have done something very bad for example you have caused some serious violence or injuries to someone. 
“Reasonably suspects”means a suspicion that is based on sensible facts that would cause fear or uneasiness in the mind of the police officer.

What court will I go to?

The Children’s Court deals with most crimes committed by young people.   If you are under 18 years old when the crime was committed, and are charged for that crime before you are 21, you will usually go before the Children’s Court. 

The Children’s Court has a responsibility to make sure you understand what is happening in the proceeding and any procedures that are taken.  So if at any point you do not understand, bring this to the courts attention.

What penalties can the Children’s Court give me?

See our page on “Penalties given by the Children’s Court”.


Will I get a criminal record if I go to Court?

You will get a criminal record if you are convicted of a crime. ‘Convicted’ means:
•    You have been found guilty of a crime or have pleaded guilty; or
•    The court has recorded a conviction. A ‘conviction’ is an entry on your criminal record. 

If you are under 16 and plead guilty, or are found guilty of a crime, then there will be no conviction recorded against you unless it is a serious crime.  This means that you will not usually get a criminal record for crimes committed when you are under 16 and so these offences cannot be taken into account if you appear in the adult courts.

A serious crime means you carry out an act with the intention of harming another person or taking away their property. Some examples of serious crimes include: murder, assault, rape, carrying guns or weapons.

If you are 16 or older and plead guilty or are found guilty of a crime which is not serious, the Children’s Court may decide not record a conviction against you.  Your record will always be available in the Children’s Court because the court can use it in sentencing you or deciding bail. 

If a conviction was not recorded in the Children’s Court, and 2 years have passed where you have not committed any further crimes, then the record of that earlier court appearance will not be admissible in adult courts.

Does my criminal record expire? Will it always be there?

A criminal record, especially with convictions may make it harder for you to travel overseas, get some jobs, apply for rent or stay at a refuge, and can affect any future court appearances. 

For example, if you want to work in the public sector you must have a criminal record check. Even some employers can ask you for a record check, but they can only do so with your permission.  You must also let insurance companies know of any driving offences you have. 

Some convictions in your criminal record can be ‘spent’. This means you don’t have to let anyone know about them even if they ask, and they won’t be shown on your criminal history. 

Any conviction from the Children’s Court is spent after 3 years, if you have not been in any more trouble during those 3 years. 
If you are placed on a good behaviour bond, given an order, or placed in a program, then this will be spent after you finish the requirements of that order. For example, when you finish the program. 

Some convictions are never spent and so will remain on your criminal record. These include sexual crimes or crimes where you were imprisoned for more than 6 months.

Some occupations will look at your spent convictions and any cautions or youth conferences. These include police officers, teachers, fire fighters, or any other employment involving children.

If you would like to work with children, then you must pass a ‘children check’. If you have committed murder, any sexual crimes, shown violence to a child, or are a registered sex offender, then you will not be able to work with children.  You can apply for a review and respond to the outcome of your check if you believe you no longer pose a risk to children. 

If you would like to work in the defence force you must not have been in prison for more than 2.5 years, have committed many crimes, were convicted of a sexual crime, or been involved in any other serious crime.  You are given the chance to respond to any decision made. 

Do I need a lawyer?

If you are charged with a crime, it’s a good idea to talk to a lawyer. 

A lawyer is important because they can:

  • Listen to your problems and explain what you have been charged with,
  • Give you advice about what will happen if you are found guilty, and whether to plead guilty or not guilty, 
  • Give your side of the story, answer questions in court, deal with all the paperwork and make sure your rights are protected and that you get a fair trial,
  • Explain what will happen in court

If you are charged with a crime you can contact the Legal Aid Youth Hotline on 1800 10 18 10. They provide free advice to young people under 18 when they have committed, or are suspected of committing a crime. 

If you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, legal advice is also provided through contacting the Aboriginal Legal Service Hotline on 1800 765 767

To find a private lawyer contact the Law Society of NSW Solicitor Referral Service on (02) 9926 0300 from 9am to 12pm and 1pm to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Or visit their website.

Page last updated 10th August 2015