In Depth

Should the age of criminal responsibility be raised?

Children as young as ten can currently be prosecuted

Experts working in youth services and the justice system have called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised in England and Wales.

Under current laws, children can be arrested, tried and convicted of a crime when they are just ten - the lowest minimum age in the EU.

Criminal responsibility starts at 14 in Germany, 15 in Sweden, 16 in Portugal and 18 in Luxembourg, The Guardian reports. The internationally recognised minimum age of criminal responsibility is 12. 

Hear The Week team debate the age of criminal responsibility on The Week Unwrapped podcast

Charlie Taylor, chair of the Youth Justice Board, says that England and Wales are “starting to look like an anomaly”, adding: “We need to look at it again.”

Children aged between ten and 17 who are accused of a crime are dealt with by youth courts, face different sentences to adults, and - if convicted - go to special secure centres for young people, rather than standard prisons.

But many critics say that any prosecution of very young children is a major cause for concern. The national policing lead for children and young people, Olivia Pinkney, told The Guardian that ten years old was a “remarkably low” age of criminal responsibility.

As chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary, Pinkney says she has seen young children struggle to understand “what is happening to them if they’re going through the full consequences of the law”.

She added that “there are other ways now of protecting the public” than were available when the age of criminal responsibility was raised from eight to ten back in 1963.

Some lawmakers have echoed that argument. A private member’s bill to raise the threshold to 12 was awaiting its second reading in the Commons before Parliament was prorogued by Boris Johnson. As a result of the suspension, the bill will make no further progress.

The Liberal Democrat peer who brought forward the proposed new law, Lord Navnit Dholakia, says it is “ridiculous” that ten-year-olds are being criminalised.

He said: “It’s about time we look at this particular issue and say: ‘Do young people at the age of ten have the capacity to understand the seriousness of what they have done?’”

Dholakia and other campaigners want to follow the example of lawmakers in Scotland, where the the age of criminal responsibility is being raised from eight to 12 after the Scottish Parliament backed the move in a unanimous vote in May.

Revealing plans for a project investigating the criminal justice system in England and Wales, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said that youth courts were “chaotic and dysfunctional”.

“It is an area we have not yet shone a light on and we wanted to get first-hand experience of what was going on. It is not a child-friendly environment where you could really help a young person and is not meeting standards that we had hoped,” she said.

Longfield wants the age of criminal responsibility raised to 12 as a first step, and then to 14.

The former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, is also pushing for the age of criminality to be raised to 12.

“There are better ways to deal with children and young people than criminalising them,” he said in a report released last month. “The current age of criminal responsibility at ten is too young. It does not comply with United Nations convention on the rights of the child...

“We consider it should be raised to at least 12.”

The proposals have been supported by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, which is responsible for children’s services at every council in England.

“I don’t think the general public need fear that all of a sudden there would be this huge group of people who are now not going to face justice, particularly if we find other ways of dealing with their behaviours. Often it’s just the stupidity of age,” said the association’s Stuart Gallimore.

However, groups campaigning to raise the age of criminality say the convictions of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in February 1993 when they were just ten has prevented the successive governments from lowering the age of criminal responsibility, says the Daily Mail.

A government spokesperson this week said there are no plans to change the rules, adding: “Setting the age of criminal responsibility at ten provides flexibility in addressing offending behaviour by children and allows for early intervention to help prevent further offending.”

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