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23 AUG 2010

Penny Booth: Well, no surprises there, then

Penny BoothChildren on trial will always hit the headlines, whether that means the broadsheets, the tabloids, or the subject of lawyers' conversations. Last week we had the decision over the two boys convicted of attempted rape: they are spared detention but have supervision orders which will mean strict monitoring of their activities and their behaviour. In 18 months the relevant legal teams will be able to apply to have the orders lifted if it is thought that the boys will not reoffend.

The boys' parents were given one year parenting orders (it takes longer, in my experience) and will have to sign the sex offenders register (not at all sure what that will do as it certainly isn't fulfilling the original intention) on behalf of their sons. The home backgrounds leave something to be desired, particularly, if the media is to be believed, in the case of the younger boy. Both boys were ten at the time of the offences, and should be off to comprehensive school this academic year.

The events leading to the trial itself have been under scrutiny - one of the boys legal team suggested the attempted rape was a game of ‘doctors and nurses' that simply went too far. There was an attempt to quash the case. How many skins went cold at the sharp attack on integrity there, so as to dismiss the serious allegations without thorough investigation and a public hearing on a dreadful crime? However, how many went cold because it actually sounded so familiar to a long-buried personal childhood memory? Games of ‘doctors and nurses' and ‘house' are very common among children, but how far do they extend and when do they become ‘wrong' - and when do children know that?

The trial raised, again, issues on the age of criminal responsibility because England and Wales has one of the lowest ages set in Europe. Much of the rest of Europe sets this at 14-16 years, not ten years, and Scotland recently raised the age from 8 to 12. Cases like this, say many, are best dealt with through the care system and had these boys been under ten at the time they would have been subjects of concern through an already overwhelmed system of civil care for children which is creaking through lack of resources.

Broken homes should not lead to broken lives - that's hardly fair. Neither is it ‘fair' when you are the victim of a sexual attack - and somehow the age of the victim (at just 8 years) just makes it worse. How are we to balance the rights in such a case? Crimes must be dealt with because that is what they are - wrongs against both the individual and against society. It would be wrong to fail to recognise if a crime had been committed because it disregards the victim and it risks damaging society by allowing such a wrong to occur without reflecting upon it. This trial, however, did not need to mark the boys (and the victim) with a trial at the Old Bailey, however ‘adapted' to deal with a criminal case which involves children.

An informed debate is, indeed, to be welcomed.

Penny Booth is running the Great North Run for Age UK on 19 September, 2010. This is a half marathon and should she manage to complete the 13.1 miles then please coinsider giving a donation to Age Uk via www.justgiving.com/PennyBooth

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.

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