When a criminal act takes place in the UK, the individual who committed the offence will be held criminally responsible for their actions or omissions. This means they will be charged under the criminal law and come before the criminal courts. If convicted, they will be served with an appropriate sentence.
However, there are exceptions to the rule that an individual will be held criminally responsibility for their criminal actions – notably, in the case of children. To be treated as responsible for a criminal act implies that the perpetrator must understand what they are doing and that it is wrong. Children under a certain age are presumed not to have sufficient knowledge and maturity to bear criminal responsibility.
The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. In Scotland it is 8, but legislation is on the table to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland to 12 years of age.
Children under the age of 10 who commit criminal acts cannot be arrested or charged with committing an offence – the law treats them as not criminally responsible. Instead, they can be subjected to a Local Child Curfew or a Child Safety Order.
Whilst children above the age of 10 can be arrested and charged, they are treated differently to adults – for instance, they may be dealt with in the youth court.
The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is the lowest in Europe with other EU Member States having an age of criminal responsibility between 13 and 15, for instance:
Custodial sentences for children under 18 are only ever used as a last resort and in relation to the most serious, persistent and violent offenders. In the year ending March 2016, just 6% of young people sentenced in England and Wales were given a custodial sentence. Usually, different forms of punishment are ordered, such as:
For children under the age of 10, child safety orders are a useful and effective tool. The order has the effect of placing the child under the supervision of a social worker of the youth offending team, and it may require the child to comply with certain conditions such as curfews. This is a measure aimed first and foremost at the protection of the child.
There have been arguments on either side, as to whether the legal age of criminal responsibility should be lowered or increased.
There have been (and continue to be) vocal calls to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the UK to bring it in line with the rest of Europe, citing international standards such as the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Successive UK governments have so far resisted calls to increase the age of criminal responsibility. In August 2016, the Government’s position was that “children aged 10 and above are, for the most part, able to differentiate between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing and should therefore be held accountable for their actions. Where a young person commits an offence, it is important they understand that it is a serious matter. The public must also have confidence in the youth justice system and know that offending will be dealt with effectively.”
Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.
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