The Children’s Court cases: The boy with the hammer, the girl in the dress

Dublin’s Children’s Court deals with cases from thefts of sweets to joyriding and assault

The Court Buildings in Smithfield, Dublin, where the Children’s Court is located. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Court Buildings in Smithfield, Dublin, where the Children’s Court is located. Photograph: Alan Betson


Children sometimes commit crime, and when they do, those aged between 12 and 18 sometimes end up in one of the country’s Children’s Courts. When you enter the Children’s Court in Smithfield, Dublin, you go up the stairway immediately ahead, at the top of which you find two doorways numbered 55 and 56.

Outside the courtrooms there are pale wooden benches at which people sit and wait until they are called. The walls are light green, and the floors are tiled. Solicitors gather in a small room to the left as you come up the stairs and the registrars and their staff reside in a small open-plan office directly opposite the court rooms.

Young people start turning up here at about 10.30am, some accompanied by parents or grandparents, others accompanied by social workers. The solicitors and barristers are generally black-clad and carrying huge piles of green files. The teenage boys, and it is largely boys, are almost all in tracksuits.

Some swagger, greeting registrar John O’Callaghan like an old friend. Some look worried and frightened. One boy goes up to the door and falteringly reads a sign: “Bottles, drinks or hot drinks allowed in court.”

His granny – there are a lot of grandparents here – corrects him. “There’s a ‘no’ on top,” she says, and he looks at his energy drink sadly.

Courtroom 55, the regular room, is smaller than you might expect and sits beneath a large skylight above which, today, some builders can be heard working. The judge, John O’Connor, sits at a desk flanked by O’Callaghan’s fellow registrar, Helen Butler, and Mary Traynor from the probation service. Above their heads there’s a bronze harp with the word Eire beneath it.

Facing them is another desk at which the solicitors sit. The accused sits at a platform at a right angle at one end of this desk, and witnesses sit opposite them. A bible sits at the witness stand with the words “property of court services” written in marker on its fore edge.

Behind this desk there’s a long bench along the wall on which the parents, guardians or social workers sit alongside visiting journalists. The main door has a sign on it reading “do not let the door bang after you as you leave the court”, although this door swings shut very quickly and repeatedly bangs over the course of the day.

The names of the solicitors and gardaí are called over the intercom. Initials are used for the children to protect their anonymity. This can cause some confusion. Today there is more than one “CC” and every time these initials are announced a short shy man, later revealed to be a parent, wanders in. “A different CC,” says the registrar apologetically.

He also warns him that if he was an adult he’d be facing custodial charges

Most of the morning cases are new cases, disclosure hearings, bail applications, remands, pleas of guilty or probation services. Hearings are held in the afternoon but none are scheduled on the days I visit. Some cases are dispensed with very quickly, pushed back to later dates or involving defendants who haven’t shown up.

The copper wire robbery

The first case that takes any time involves a boy who looks about 14, but has, in fact, recently turned 17. He is wearing a light grey tracksuit and is accompanied by a young blonde woman in a bright red top. He’s up for two matters, says his solicitor, and then he asks if both can be addressed today. The judge agrees.

The first offence dates back to earlier last year, when the defendant and three others broke into a builders’ providers business and absconded with €1,000 worth of copper wiring. They were then caught, on camera, throwing it over a fence where it was later found by the business owner. The garda on the witness stand agrees there had been “no loss”.

The other offences, dealt with separately a little later in the day, are instances of criminal damage to a door and two CCTV cameras. All date from the same period in 2017. It quickly becomes apparent that a year is a long time in juvenile justice.

In this instance, the solicitor notes that the boy’s bad behaviour had more or less ceased since moving in with his sister and away from the chaotic lifestyle he had when under the care of a more troubled mother. The sister, the woman in red, is 26 and has three young children of her own. “You are a remarkable person,” says the judge.

He orders a probation bond for 12 months. He tells the boy not to be too pleased with himself. “You have work to do,” he says. He also warns him that if he was an adult he’d be facing custodial charges.

“Well done,” he says again to the boy’s sister as they leave. He continues to praise her warmly when they have left the room.

The boy with the hammer

The next boy is 15, accompanied by his grandmother and is charged with “the production of a claw hammer in a public place”. It’s his first offence and he didn’t, to be clear, use the claw hammer on anyone or anything. The lawyer makes a disclosure order, which means the prosecution must furnish him with all the details of their evidence before anything proceeds.

The solicitor and the boy and his mother retreat temporarily to discuss bail conditions with the garda. When they return they’ve agreed that the boy should keep a curfew from 10.30pm to 6am and should steer clear of two older individuals whose names are read out. “Both are well known to me in this court,” says the judge.

The boy signs the bail bond and smiles. The judge catches this and explains sternly the consequences of breaking the agreement.

The distraught girl

Only two girls are seen today. The first is a 16-year-old Romanian girl in a long colourful dress. She comes in with her lawyer and both her parents, which is unusual in this court. She is charged with aggressive begging – she and a relative were arrested together – and a future court date is agreed.

The girl looks confused. “I’m sorry for disturbing you,” she asks the judge softly. “But is that a hearing?” The judge confirms that it is.

the girl looks down at her hands and it slowly it dawns on everyone that she is sobbing

The second comes in on foot of a bench warrant – an arrest order for someone who has failed to appear in court. Most of the children and their solicitors enter by the main court door. But those already in custody enter with gardaí from another door at the opposite end of the room. Out in the lobby earlier I heard one solicitor warning a client, “Do you want to leave by the ‘other door’?”

Now a girl comes in the ‘other door’ accompanied by a garda. She is wearing running leggings and a baggy tracksuit top. Her hair is tied back but strands falls over her face. She looks very tired and she stumbles slightly as she sits down.

She should have been in court yesterday and was arrested subsequently on O’Connell Bridge. She is technically in care. She has a child, also in care, but not living with her.

She is charged with two counts of assault on care-workers at the residential unit in which she formerly lived and she is currently living in emergency accommodation that everyone thinks is unsuitable for her.

Her social worker tells the judge she is planning to arrange a meeting between the girl and her father and other family members in the county where she is from. As they thrash through the details of this, the girl looks down at her hands and it slowly it dawns on everyone that she is sobbing. “I don’t want to go back to him,” she says. “I don’t want to live with him.”

The judge asks whether they need him to step out for a moment, so they can confer. He retreats to his chambers and everyone rises when he does so. The girl is distraught. She says her family don’t care about her and at one point she pulls her tracksuit top over her shoulder to show a bad wound she has there.

“We need to get you out of Dublin,” says the social worker. “It’s too dangerous. We can look at mother and baby homes again . . . You’re only little yourself; you need support.”

The social worker gets the girl to agree to a meeting with the social worker, if not with her family. “We’re going to fix this,” she says but the girl looks like she doesn’t believe anything will ever be fixed.

The judge comes back and adjourns the case in order to facilitate this. “I didn’t mean to not turn up yesterday,” the girl tells the judge. “But they didn’t wake me up and I was after hurting myself.”

The boy on curfew

More initials are called, and a worried looking boy comes in from the custody door. He is also in the care system and also lives in emergency homeless accommodation. He is here on foot of two bench warrants.

I don’t understand why I’m put on curfew

Initially there is some confusion because the garda has turned up with photocopies of the warrants rather than the originals. They’re dismissed temporarily so the garda can clarify some details and they return a little later.

The boy’s offences are minor, but he hasn’t been obeying previous curfew conditions and has only been at the hostel on two out of the last 28 days. “I was staying with my girlfriend,” he says. “But her mother won’t let me now.”

There is some danger the boy is going to be kicked out of the emergency hostel. “They said I was kicking in the door, but I wasn’t,” he says, “I gave it two little taps.” He adds that if they get the CCTV footage he’ll prove it.

The social worker says they’re very worried about the boy and that attempts have been made to find a permanent place for him.

“I’d rather stay there than be out on the streets or the boardwalk,” says the boy. He says he just wants a house and a place on a Fás course. “I don’t understand why I’m put on curfew,” he says at one point in an aside.

It’s been previously agreed he will participate in a family welfare conference, in which he and members of his family engage with the child and family agency over welfare concerns. He is granted bail, and the case is delayed until after that meeting. “Thank you judge,” says the boy as he leaves. He leaves by the main door.

The erratic driver

The next case involves a relatively smartly dressed Romanian teenager. An interpreter was organised and is sitting outside, but it turns out both the boy and his father have perfectly good English. A garda is sworn in and begins describing how on a date midway through last year he spotted the defendant driving a hatchback erratically and he put on his lights to signal for him to pull over.

You could end up going to prison

The boy took off at 100km per hour, weaving in and out on the wrong side of the road, eventually reaching about 140k/ph, before hitting the kerb and flipping the car over. The boy then took flight on foot and was arrested a short time later.

The judge wants the boy to know he is taking this very seriously. “You could be dealing with a loss of life,” says the judge.

The boy is soon to turn 18 and has no previous convictions, but another charge is also due to be heard elsewhere, and the judge asks for a detailed probation report and names a future date for this. “You could end up going to prison,” warns the judge. “You need to get a very good probation report.”

The sweet stealer

There are several instances over the course of the morning where a case cannot be heard because a child hasn’t turned up or they haven’t brought a suitable adult family member or guardian with them. One young man is here to face a drug charge, but his mother, a hotel worker, has been unable to get time off work. The judge is sympathetic, naming a later date.

In another instance, a girl has furnished her solicitor with two different excuses for why she isn’t present. The judge issues a bench warrant. “She is well used to this court,” he says.

In a third case, the defendant’s mother is away on holiday and maintains that her son is uncontactable because he has no phone. “This is the only place in Ireland where teenagers do not have mobile phones,” says the judge. The judge agrees to the adjournment because the charge was “at the very low end of the scale”. At the end of the day a sleepy looking boy sticks his baseball-hatted head into the courtroom apologising profusely. “I slept out,” he says.

“Take your hat off in the court,” says John O’Callaghan. He takes it off. The judge sternly tells him to go talk to his solicitor and he does. When he is gone, the judge smiles. “He’s not the worst,” he says.

The boy is charged with stealing €4.99 worth of sweets.

The probation bond

A week later, outside courtroom 55 a solicitor huddles with a boy and his mother, trying to convince him that signing up to a drug rehabilitation group would help his case. “I don’t need it,” the boy keeps saying, his voice slurred. Later, I observe them in court, and the mother seems remarkably clued in about the supports and services her son needs.

A confident young man in jeans walks by on the phone. “I should be out of here in 30 minutes,” he says loudly, and I note later that he is.

I sit observing the green courtroom doorways, which have graffiti scratched into them revealing red paint beneath. On one doorway, someone is outted as “a rat”. The word “f**k” is also clear, as are a number of nicknames: “Anto”, “Slim” and “Dano”. A few have carved their full names, which doesn’t seem wise.

The court begins shortly after 10.30am. One of the first defendants, a tall red-haired young man, is a new father. “I hope she hasn’t your looks,” chuckles John O’Callaghan and the boy laughs.

“She’s the image of him,” says the boy’s mother.

He’s due to be 18 in August, and he’s here on a number of driving-related charges including driving without insurance and a licence. He has previous charges related to criminal damage and public order. The judge asks about his ADHD. “He still takes medication,” says his mother.

The judge gets him to sign a probation bond – this commits him to engaging with the probation services for 12 months – and then he disqualifies him from driving for two years. The boy is due to turn 18 soon, at which point, the judge notes, “there’ll be none of these friendly chats”.

A ‘horrific’ assault

The next defendant hasn’t turned up, but this is unsurprising. He has absconded from Oberstown detention centre. “We’re in the hands of the court,” says his solicitor. There has been some contact with him by mobile phone. “They have a fair idea where he is,” says the judge.

The boy was part of a gang who stabbed a man repeatedly

There are also two other boys from Oberstown today. The solicitor for the first young man has a psychological report for the judge to read. The judge does so with his hand to his chin and a pen in his hand. It takes more than 10 minutes and the rest of us sit in silence, staring at the scuffed parquet flooring.

The 17-year-old has 22 previous convictions. These include arson, false imprisonment, criminal damage and some very serious assaults which have already led to a three-year sentence. He’s currently looking at an additional 12-month sentence for more minor charges involving theft and criminal damage. What is under discussion today is whether it makes sense to add this time to his existing sentence or to have it run concurrently.

One of his assault charges is, as the judge says, “horrific”. The boy was part of a gang who stabbed a man repeatedly and left him in the canal. The man survived and in the boy’s favour is the fact that he returned and helped the man from the water when his friends didn’t. This, at least, the judge says, “showed some insight”.

The judge outlines the boy’s life with a troubled mother, an abusive half-sibling, a period in care, his own addictions and a stretch spent on the streets. “I’ve seen you from the age of 14 coming here,” he says. “It isn’t easy for you. You know what you’ve done is pretty bad. But you can change. Only you can change . . . You have to make a choice.”

He decides the additional sentence will run concurrently with his three-year sentence. The solicitor explains what this means, and the boy looks surprised. “I don’t think the public are served by increasing the sentence,” says the judge.

‘I’ll smash his face in’

The next defendant is a skinny, scowling 17-year-old who has been spotted by gardaí several times in a stolen car. Gardaí are strongly objecting to bail because he has missed court on three occasions in the past. The boy and the assembled gardaí – there are four of them in the court for this – do not have a friendly relationship.

The guard walks over to the boy to read out the separate occasions he was spotted. “When did you see me in the car?”

“On that date,” says the guard, pointing to the paper he just read from.

“You didn’t,” says the boy.

The boy has also been breaking previously agreed curfew arrangements and as the gardaí begin explaining these transgressions he interrupts with angry explanations.

“Shhh,” say his mother and his solicitor repeatedly.

“I won’t shut up,” he says, and points at the guard. “I’ll smash [his] face in, the muppet.”

The judge decides the boy needs to talk to his solicitor and he goes to his chambers. Everyone stands. The boy fronts up to the gardaí, one of whom keeps him at bay with an authoritative index finger. “Don’t you tell me what to do,” the boy shouts before he is ushered out the door.

A little while later they all return and he leans back in his chair fiddling with the zip on his jacket. “Push your seat in,” says an exasperated garda.

“Just putting my jacket on, relax for f**k’s sake,” says the boy. The judge names a date a week hence for a disclosure from the prosecution. “We’re lucky he didn’t throw a chair,” says the judge when he leaves. This happens on occasion, I’m told.

The boy is impatient

Another 17-year-old is charged with possession of a small amount of cannabis found during a search and an instance of public intoxication. He has a few convictions from several years before, including assaulting a police officer and theft.

“I’m sick of f**king talking,” says the boy

The judge recognises the new charges are not on this level. He decides to get the boy to undergo the family conference process in lieu of a conviction (this is a six-month process in which the child engages with the consequences of his crimes that might involve course-attendance, letters of apology, volunteering in the community and engagement with victims). “If he successfully completes it, I’ll strike both matters out.”

Finally, the other boy from Oberstown comes in. His case has been delayed until an adult guardian is present and his girlfriend’s mother has arrived to support him.

The boy is impatient. He’s been here all morning and wants to go back to Oberstown. He’s here to answer for some minor wallet and phone thefts, but he is already serving a long sentence for some very serious assaults.

He and some other boys stabbed someone by the nearby Luas tracks and they also badly beat someone. Then over a year ago, he and a friend stole a busker’s amplifier. When the man chased them, they stabbed him in the face and he lost an eye.

The judge has yet to decide whether to add the new 10-month sentence to his existing sentence or allow those months to run concurrently.

The judge discusses whether he can suspend the sentence and the solicitor, to the judge’s surprise, argues against this on a point of law that I don’t entirely understand. The boy’s girlfriend’s mother is sworn in. Her hands shake as she talks about how much work the young man has done to overcome his issues with anger and with drugs. The lawyer talks about how engaged and well behaved the young man has been in Oberstown.

The judge thinks the solicitor needs to talk more to his client before they proceed. The boy gets annoyed. “Just give it to me or not.”

“Shhhh,” says his solicitor.

“I’m sick of f**king talking,” says the boy.

“Don’t curse,” says his girlfriend’s mother.

“I’m almost 18 I can make my own f**king decision. Make it three years and 10 months, I don’t care.”

“I make the decisions around here, in case anyone has forgotten,” says the judge eventually, and the boy smiles. The judge says he wants him back in the morning in good humour after a proper discussion with his solicitor. “I was in a good humour, but I’m sick of sitting here,” says the boy.

An alibi warning

For the most part, the Children’s Court is a relatively friendly, collaborative place with custodial sentences given as a last resort.

Today, there is also a case involving a stolen credit card that is deemed serious enough to be referred to the Circuit Court. The young man has just turned 18. He is presented with the book of evidence and given an “alibi warning” (which basically means that if he does have an alibi he must inform the prosecutor). There’s some toing and froing and at one point the young man whispers something to his lawyer.

“Do you understand what’s going on?” asks the judge.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “It’s not my first time.”

“But the last,” says his solicitor quickly.

The judge asks the boy about his son. “He’s one next month,” says the young man proudly.

“Thanks Mr O’Connor,” he says as he leaves the court for the last time.

“Thanks John,” he adds to O’Callaghan.

“He called you ‘Mr O’Connor’,” says O’Callaghan, of this breach of etiquette.

“I’ve been called worse,” says the judge.