Saturday, 13 March 2010

Should we raise the age of criminal responsibility?

Most countries have recognised a need to have an age of criminal responsibility.  Those under the age may not be convicted of an offence.  English common law set the age at 8 but it was raised to 10 by the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 s.50.  Until the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 there was a further important rule.  A child in the age range 10 to under 14 could not be convicted of an offence unless the prosecution could prove that the child knew that the act he was doing was seriously wrong.    However, that rule was abolished by the 1998 Act s.34 and, after some doubt raised by CPS v P [2007] EWHC 946 (Admin), the total abolition of the age 10-14 rule was confirmed by T [2008] EWCA Crim 815.

With somewhat questionable timing (in the light of the return to custody of Venables), the Children's Commissioner for England has put forward the view that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 12 - see BBC 13th March.  Currently, there is a move in Scotland to do just that - BBC 1st March.  Many European countries have higher ages than 12.

Whatever the arguments relating to the actual age chosen, is it wise to merely raise the age without also undertaking a detailed review and thorough overhaul of the methods of dealing with those below the age who have committed what would otherwise have been offences?

Links: Children's Commissioner for England / for Wales / for Northern Ireland /for Scotland

Addendum: Here are the views of Baroness Butler-Sloss and also comments from members of the public - The Times 14th March.  The learned Baroness is undoubtedly right in saying that no government would put raising this age to the general public at the moment - especially, one might add, with a general election looming.


  1. This looks like the worst cas eof publicity seeking for self-serving purposes. The Children's Commissioner appears to have been remarkably silent during several well publicised cases of child abuse, neglect, manslaughter and murder and yet now isssues statements. Were this to be agreed and acted upon, one can only imagine the claims against HMG which would arise for wrongful imprisonment of Venables and Thompson. Not a good idea.

  2. Ed (not Bystander)13 March 2010 at 18:25

    It would not give rise to any such claims, since the change would certainly not be retrospective.

  3. It seems that the Ministry of Justice has been very quick to distance itself from the Children's Commissioner - see The Times 13/3/10 The cynical might say that this is hardly surprising given (a) the heated atmosphere due to Venables returning to custody and (b) the fact that a general election is imminent.

  4. An article in the Times this morning raises the interesting question of comparing the ages at which people are considered responsible enough to do various things:

    Vote 18
    Buy cigarettes 18
    Consent to sex 16
    Be criminally responsible for their actions 10

    Som epeople might think that there was some anomaly here.

  5. Andrew - yes, you make a good point. I feel sure that this issue will return when it is more politically appropriate for government to deal with it.

  6. As long as redtops exist, no government will deal with this issue.