Age of criminal responsibility ‘out of sync’ with rest of the world, MPs told

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Age of criminal responsibility ‘out of sync’ with rest of the world, MPs told

Old Bailey: the central criminal court of England and Wales

Ministers should consider increasing the criminal age of responsibility in England and Wales from 10, according to a new select committee report. A new report from the Houses of Commons’ Justice Select Committee yesterday published the first report of its ‘Children and Young People in Custody’ inquiry, after hearing oral evidence earlier in the year. For coverage on the Justice Gap see here.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission told the group that ‘the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is inconsistent with accepted international standards’. The equalities watchdog made reference to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child finding that children’s brains continue to develop and mature past the age of 10 so are ‘unlikely to understand the impact of their actions or to comprehend criminal proceedings’.

By contrast, the Ministry of Justice told MPs that ‘children aged 10 and over are able to differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing’.

Dr Pamela Taylor, Chair of the Forensic Faculty at Royal College of Psychiatrist, said that England and Wales is ‘out of sync’ with the rest of the world on this issue. In Scotland, for example, the age is set at 12, in Germany it is 14, and in Denmark it is 15.

The calls for an increase in the age of criminal responsibility were not shared by all. The justice minister Lucy Frazer QC MP told the justice committee that she was aware of the ‘disparity across a number of jurisdictions’ but the Government’s focus was on ‘ensuring that we divert people away from the justice system’.

Dr Alexandra Lewis, Chair of Adolescent Forensic Faculty Special Interest Group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, added that the current age of responsibility was based on the outdated proposition that the ‘most significant period of brain maturation was in the first five or possibly eight years’. She emphasised that ‘a second critical period takes place in adolescence … so it does not make sense to treat somebody at 10 the same as an adult’.

The Committee heard that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – who at the age of 10 murdered 2 year-old James Bulger – would not have served custodial sentences if the age had been increased.

The Committee was ultimately ‘not persuaded that [the age] should be immediately increased’. However, it recognised that there were arguments in favour of raising it and, in particular, the age in England and Wales was lower in comparison to Scotland and European jurisdictions. As such, it called on the Ministry of Justice to consider the implications of raising the age of responsibility to 12 and 14 years old. In particular, whether this would have an effect on reducing the number of children in custody and the use of alternative methods of disposing of children beneath those ages who have committed serious offences.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told The Guardian, ‘The Committee said it is not convinced there is a reason to change the age of criminal responsibility – and we have no plans to do so.’

The justice committee was ‘particularly concerned’ about the disproportionate number of children from minority ethnic backgrounds – 51.9% of the whole cohort as of May 2020 – who were in custody. The Committee asked for ‘detailed research setting out why these communities are so disproportionately represented in each part of the system’.

MPs also commented that Covid-19 has presented ‘numerous challenge’ for the youth justice system. The report highlights that delays leave defendants in custody for longer and prolong a victim’s fight for justice. As such, the Committee invited the Ministry of Justice to ‘set out the number of outstanding cases in the youth courts and what steps are being taken to ensure that cases are dealt with expeditiously’.