What is meant by Criminal Responsibility?
A criminal act is an act which has been committed by an individual which is considered by society as wrong, damaging to other individuals or society as a whole or is otherwise unacceptable. This conduct can be anything from theft, offences against the person, murder to sexual offences.
The individual guilty of a criminal offence will face prosecution by the state rather than a claim from an individual which would be a civil claim.
To be deemed responsible for a criminal act implies that the perpetrator must understand what they are doing and that it is wrong.
The age of criminal responsibility
For a perpetrator to fully understand what they are doing and that it is wrong they must be above a certain age and it is virtually impossible for children below a certain age to fully understand that their actions are wrong and the consequences of such actions.
The current age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. Children under the age of 10 who commit criminal acts cannot be charged with committing those acts as the law sees them as incapable of committing those acts.
What is the position in other jurisdictions throughout the European Union?
The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is the lowest in Europe with other European Union Member States setting the age of criminal responsibility between 14 and 16. The following European Union Member States have the following ages of criminal responsibility:
- France – 13
- Italy – 14
- Denmark – 15
- Spain – 16
If the age of criminal responsibility is set at 10 does this mean that many children are being provided with a custodial sentence?
Many criminal acts carry with them a custodial sentence in prison as well as a fine meaning that individuals tried and convicted of these offences will be sent to prison. However, custodial sentences for individuals aged under 18 are only ever used as a last resort and in relation to the most serious, persistent and violent offenders.
According to Government Statistics only 3% of young offenders who commit criminal offences will receive a custodial sentence, as there are many other community sentences are widely used for young offenders as an alternative to custody.
What options are available to be used as an alternative to custody?
- Child Safety Orders
- Curfew Schemes for certain areas
- Anti-social behavioural orders
What is the position in relation to children under 10?
As stated above children under 10 cannot be convicted of a criminal act as they are below the age of criminal responsibility. However, child safety orders are a tool that can be used in relation to the actions of children under the age of 10. 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.
Should the age of criminal responsibility remain at 10 in England and Wales?
There have been arguments on either side of the position, some feeling that the age of criminal responsibility should in fact be lowered and others feeling that it should be increased.
Lowering the age of criminal responsibility
It has been reported through a study undertaken in 2007 that nearly 3,000 crimes committed in a single year were committed by children under the age of 10. The figures show that 1,300 crimes of criminal damage were committed and more than 60 sex offences where the suspects were under 10.
Many feel that the only way to deal with crimes such as this are to try them as criminal offences carrying with them appropriate sanctions for a child of that age.
The question is whether such things as child safety orders are doing enough to prevent this kind of crime from occurring.
Increasing the age of criminal responsibility
Many feel that the current age of criminal responsibility in the UK is too low and convicting children as young as 10 of criminal convictions is not an adequate response.
What recommendations have been made in relation to the age of criminal responsibility?
The following recommendations have been made in relation to the age of criminal responsibility:
The age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 14 with civil child care proceedings used for children below that age who need compulsory measures of care
That a diversion from prosecution should be encouraged
That specialist prosecutors should be introduced with the aim of actively diverting cases and identifying cases where local authorities should investigate the need for care proceedings
The UK Government has recently been asked to consider whether the age of criminal responsibility should be increased to 12 as it was felt that children under this age did not fully understand the consequences of their actions.
However, the Ministry of Justice rejected the claims stating that children between the ages of 10 and 12 knew the difference between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing. Accordingly the age of criminal responsibility remains at 10.