Age of Criminal Responsibility: the Frontier Between Care and Justice

19 MAR 2007

Mr Justice Gillen, Supreme Court of Northern Ireland. The low age of criminal responsibility in the UK, it is argued, rather than achieving its stated objective of preventing offending, potentially has the dangerous effect of criminalising children and locking them into a cycle of crime and poverty.

The UK has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility of any of the European States. The emphasis adopted by our criminal justice systems is on preventing offending and not on child welfare. Section 37 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 places all those carrying out functions in relation to the youth justice system under a statutory duty to have regard to the principle aim of preventing offending by children and young people. The Government has even suggested that this principle aim of preventing offending should be elevated to the single main consideration when sentencing young offenders.

This is in conflict with international human rights standards. The 2002 Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the UK adopt the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration in all legislation and policy affecting children throughout its territory, most notably within the youth justice system. Children in trouble are also children in need. There is no shortage of research linking criminal behaviour of young people with poverty, fractured families, problems in schooling and learning and behavioural difficulties.

While it would be foolish to ignore the seriousness of crimes committed by children, we have to ask ourselves as a society whether or not, despite the importance of anti-social behaviour being dealt with, it is equally important that children should not be criminalised. The article identifies the flaws and failings of the current UK youth justice system and contemplates a new approach that brings issues of crime and family together. For the full article see March [2007] International Family Law.

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