Navnit Dholakia: It’s time to raise the age of criminal responsibility

Today in the House of Lords, Lord Navnit Dholakia will have the Second Reading of his Private Member’s Bill which would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. It would, he writes here, be an important step in the way we deal with children

Lord Dholakia
Lord Dholakia

AT present in England and Wales children are deemed to be criminally responsible from the age of 10. That’s the lowest in Europe. In Scotland children cannot be prosecuted below the age of 12. Outside the British Isles the age of criminal responsibility is invariably even higher. In France, Greece and Poland it is 13. In Germany, Spain and Italy 14. In the rest of Europe it ranges between 15 and 18.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly stated that our minimum age of criminal responsibility is not compatible with our obligations under international standards of juvenile justice and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Of course, taking 10- or 11-year-olds out of the criminal justice system would not mean doing nothing with children who offend. It would mean doing what other countries do with them, or what we do with delinquent nine-year-olds. In other words, it would mean dealing with the causes of these children’s offending through intervention by children’s services teams.

In the minority of cases where court proceedings are necessary, it would mean bringing children before family proceedings courts which can impose compulsory measures of supervision and care. In the most serious cases this can mean long-term detention in secure accommodation, but this would be arranged as part of care proceedings rather than as a custodial punishment imposed in criminal proceedings.

Those who oppose increasing the age of criminal responsibility often argue that children of 10 and 11 are capable of telling right from wrong, as though it automatically followed that they should therefore be dealt with in criminal courts. But this doesn’t logically follow at all. Most six-year-olds have a sense of right and wrong but no-one suggests they should be subject to criminal prosecution.

There is no other area of the law – whether it is the age for buying a pet, the age for paid employment, the age of consent to sexual activity or the age for smoking and drinking – where we regard children as fully competent to take informed decisions until later in adolescence.  The age of criminal responsibility is an anomalous exception.

My Bill is a simple proposition which would, if enacted, be an important step towards dealing with vulnerable, difficult and disturbed children in a way which befits a civilised society.

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.

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