Debating age of criminal responsibility

Sean Creaney
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The age of criminal responsibility bill (in its second reading) was recently debated in the House of Lords. Lord Dholakia’s private members bill proposes an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. This is welcoming especially as such a consideration seems to have been excluded from the youth justice review’s terms of reference.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales being set at 10 is extremely low. It not only contravenes international rights based obligations but is arguably unfair, somewhat illogical and contradictory. For example how is it that children are considered criminally responsible at 10 but not regarded as competent – or responsible enough – to, say, put the lottery on until 16 or vote until 18? 

It is a matter of some concern that primary school aged children continue to acquire criminal records that can blight their future. Moreover, subjecting children as young as 10 to criminal justice intervention can be counterproductive and potentially developmentally damaging.

The National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) in its recent submission to Charlie Taylor’s youth justice review explore similar issues. The NAYJ has long campaigned for an increase in the age of criminal responsibility. Similarly the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers (AYM) supports raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 but with a commitment that services address issues (not ignore them) which have led to offending by 10 to 12 year olds. The AYM deem offending behaviour by very young children as an issue that warrants help not punishment.

Putting young children through a legal/court system that is not child-centred is inappropriate. Increasing the age of criminal responsibility could help to prevent such (at times) unnecessary (potentially damaging) criminalisation. This does not mean condoning problematic behaviour but rather dealing with it differently through the family intervention model or by children’s social care where necessary.

Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power

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