Raising the age of criminal responsibility

By Zoe Keene at 00:00

Raising the age of criminal responsibility

It would appear that this UK Government are quietly planning to raise the age of criminal responsibility from the current age of 10 to the age of 12. There is a bill before the House of Lords which proposes to do just that.

There has been no publicity surrounding this and no mention of this in the last election manifesto. Is there a reason the UK Government want to raise the age of criminal responsibility quietly?

Having researched the situation further it seems that we have the lowest age of criminal responsibility for children in Europe (save for Scotland which is 8 although a child cannot appear before the criminal court until they are 12) and in fact in most European countries the age is 14 and upwards, even 16 and 18. As a result of that Northern Ireland, England and Wales have the highest number of children in prison in the whole of Europe.

The UK Government have faced increasing pressure from the Howard League for Penal Reform (a national charity working towards fewer people in prison) amongst others including the Children’s Commissioner, UNICEF, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, the Centre for Social Justice and the Royal Society and the previous Archbishop of Canterbury - who have all recommended that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to a minimum of 12 years old.

Why should we raise the age of Criminal responsibility?

The aim for these influential agencies and leading figures is to implement a new legal youth system to replace our existing system of criminalising children. And that we must look behind the reasons that these children offend and try and tackle those issues rather than pushing such young children into a criminal justice system and criminalising them from such a young age. Giving children as young as 10 a criminal record, imprisoning children for lengthy periods - affecting their future opportunity to seek employment and to progress within British society.

Or should we?

The general public often struggle to imagine young children being before the courts and certainly can never picture them behind bars and no doubt many disagree with the system we have but one only needs to recollect the tragic case of James Bulger in 1993 and to determine if their strong stance on the matter of increasing this age of criminal responsibility remains? I have no doubt that if at that time the minimum age of criminal responsibility was 12 there would have been a public outcry that this horrific criminal case would go unpunished. The tragic case of James Bulger is over 20 years old but will and should forever remain fresh in the minds of the whole British public and the UK Government.

This case alone with the public outpouring of anger and emotion only highlights that any changes the UK Government propose to make in relation to the age of criminal responsibility should be taken with serious thought and with an open discussion with the public.

This is supported by Lady Butler Sloss, the judge who granted Thompson and Venebles anonymity on their release, who stated that she had sympathy with the views of the childrens commissioner but felt that changing the age would be unworkable due to public opinion.

One wonders if this is why the UK Government have not publicised their intentions to raise this age?

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Zoe Keene

Zoe Keene , Solicitor

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