Children are generally liable under criminal law for their own actions from the age of 10 years old, although the younger the child, the less likely it might be that the child intended his actions or was acting recklessly. It should also be noted that children under the age of ten can be arrested for having committed criminal acts, even though they cannot be later charged with having done so. The reason for this apparent quirk in the system is that it allows for intervention by agencies outside of the mainstream criminal justice system, notably social services.
New Labour’s focus on anti-social behaviour led to a greater interest in the more low level criminal behaviour and nuisance and so it is more important than ever for both children and parents to know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour which are more tightly drawn than many parents would believe.
The arbitrary ages for various degrees of legal responsibility can look remarkably inconsistent. For example in March 2011 a broad-sheet journalist reflected that ‘a defendant not old enough to legally buy a hamster’ could be tried in an adult court as though ‘the level of psychological sophistication required to look after a domesticated rodent’ was ‘worthy of a longer period of development than the capacity to understand the moral responsibility inherent in the commission of a serious criminal act’
The UK has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe – since Scotland raised their age from eight years to 12 in 2011. There has been pressure on the UK to raise the age of criminal responsibility. For example, in 2005 Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, recommended that the age of criminal responsibility in Britain should be raised to the levels of other European countries, where children generally have limited responsibility from 13 or 14 and full responsibility at 18. In his report, he expressed surprise that the age of criminal responsibility was 10 in England and Wales. He was reported to have ‘extreme difficulty in accepting that a child of 12 or 13 can be criminally culpable for his actions in the same sense as an adult’. In the prosecution of the two 10-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who killed the toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993, it was argued that they knew that what they were doing was seriously wrong and therefore they were given prison sentences. In July 2011, in a parliamentary answer, the justice minister Crispin Blunt in a question posed by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, stated that there were no current plans to alter the age of criminal responsibility.
Thanks to Andrew Keogh, criminal defence lawyer and editor of CrimeLine for his help with this section and an earlier version which appeared in A Parent’s Guide to the Law by Jon Robins (LawPack , 2009). We’re grateful also to Kim Evans for her help.