Friday, 20 May 2011

The age of criminal responsibility

It was good to read in Children and Young People Now today that Assistant Commissioner Ian McPherson, the Association of Chief Police Officer's lead spokesperson on children's and young people's issues, is quoted as saying: 

"To say that at the age of 10 you suddenly become responsible as an individual seems to me a bit foolish."

What was very foolish was the peremptory abolition of the presumption of doli incapax by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This meant that the prosecution no longer have to show that a child knew that what they were doing was seriously wrong. The Blair government's wretched publication, No More Excuses published in 1997, says:

"The Government believes that in presuming that children of this age (10-14) generally do not know the difference between naughtiness and serious wrongdoing, the notion of doli incapax is contrary to common sense." (para 4.4)

But in fact it is contrary to commonsense to presume that children as young as ten have a similar understanding of "serious wrongdoing" to an adult, as Ian McPherson has clearly recognised. We should be ashamed that we treat young people who appear before the courts as if they were invariably as culpable as adults. And we need to remember that the vast majority of children who come before the criminal courts are not charged with serious crimes of violence, but rather with matters such as dishonesty or criminal damage.

Our present Government has apparently said that it has no plans to revisit the age of criminal responsibility. It too should be ashamed that it is allowing an issue like this to fester, especially when the Scottish Government has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12. No-one should take any satisfaction that in England and Wales we have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe. It is a sign of a harsh and intolerant society.