Criminal Age Bill to be re-introduced by Lord Dholakia + Background Box

Lord Dholakia 2

I just got my highest uni grade of the year with this news story, which I’m so happy about! Thought I’d share it on here to let everyone have a look 🙂 Bear in mind that it was written 2 months ago..

A controversial bill to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) in the UK is to be re-submitted to Parliament after its official state opening in May, it was announced this week.

Pam Hibbert from the National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) which works “to promote the rights of and justice for children and young people in trouble with the law” told how The Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill (2012-13) was “currently withdrawn” but “will be re-presented in the next Parliamentary session.”

The bill sets out the proposal to raise the age whereby a child is responsible for their criminal actions from ten to twelve. Britain is renowned for having one of the lowest MACR in Europe and, with criticism from both the United Nations and the European Union, Britain is under pressure to align its legislation with that of its European neighbours.

Initially presented as a private member’s bill, sponsored by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia in the House of Lords, the proposal had gone through the first reading stage in January 2013 and was awaiting a confirmed date for second reading. However, Lord Dholakia’s office confirmed that “there was no time available to complete the remaining stages.”

Lord Dholakia, dubbed “the highest-ranking Indian politician in the West” has repeatedly made it clear he feels “it is wrong to criminalise children at such a young age.” Whilst sharing the same view, Mrs Hibbert from NAYJ made it clear that “We’re not saying that children…should be let off. These are children with huge welfare needs…they need to be addressed, in everybody’s interests.”

Britain is no stranger to the controversy surrounding having one of the lowest MACR in the world, however. Since the minimum age was set at ten in 1963, there have been a number of high profile cases that have brought the UK’s MACR under the spotlight; the most notorious being the murder of James Bulger.

Whilst most agree that murderers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson knew full well that their actions were wrong, there is also the argument that their incarceration in secure units has done nothing to reform them, but instead isolate them. Many use the 2010 conviction of Venables for possession of child pornography as proof of this.

Additionally, the Labour government under Tony Blair abolished the “doli incapax” legal presumption which stated that “children under 14 did not know the difference between right and wrong and were therefore incapable of committing an offence.

NAYJ has long campaigned for the UK’s MACR to be raised, and in 2011 led a drive to raise it to 16. Using the Guardian newspaper as a platform, they displayed an open letter “signed by more than 50 individuals…with expertise in youth justice” which called for common sense; “you have to be 13 years old to get a paper round…and 17 to drive.”

Former Minister for Youth Justice, Crispin Blunt MP, has thus far rebutted each proposal. When questioned in Parliament in 2011, Mr Blunt argued “children aged 10 are able to distinguish between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing.” He admitted last year that the case was “well argued” but it was “important that the seriousness of their action is impressed upon them.”

Communications expert Louise Restell, who has previously expressed her reservations about the UK’s MACR welcomed the latest development, saying she was “pleased someone is finally taking a stand.”

“I’m not suggesting children don’t know right from wrong by the age of 10, but there is a big difference between knowing it and being able to abide by it…children of that age obviously can’t make judgements in the way adults can.”

“I can only assume that having nearly the lowest age of consent in the world is a tenacious hangover from the Victorian attitude that children should be seen and not heard.”

For some perspective on how low Britain’s MACR is, a few relevant examples are that it is 16 in Belgium, 13 in France and 7 in India. In the United States, if a child commits a crime and they are below 12, the parent or guardian responsible for the child is liable for their actions.

The State Opening of Parliament for the 2013/14 session is on Wednesday 8th May 2013 and although a date is yet to be confirmed, it is thought that the bill will be re-introduced by Lord Dholakia in due course.

Background Box

The most notorious case involving the age of criminal responsibility in recent years is the tragic murder of James Bulger in 1993.

On 12th February 1993, two-year old Bulger was at a shopping centre in Bootle, Liverpool with his mother Denise when he was ‘befriended’ and abducted by two young boys after his mother had briefly lost sight of him.

The two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both of whom were ten-years-old, were playing truant from school and seized the opportunity to prey on the toddler, something which evidence suggests they had already planned; whoever the child might be.

When questioned, both blamed one another for the crime but significantly, Thompson was quoted as saying, “let’s get him lost outside so when he goes into the road he’ll get knocked over.” But the plan escalated into something atrocious.

After a two-and-a-half mile walk, which had seen the trio sighted by no less than THIRTY-EIGHT members of the public, had seen James dropped on his head, punched and kicked. When approached by any of ‘the Liverpool 38’, the boys had avoided telling the truth but whilst suspicions were raised, not one person informed police of what they had seen.

However, the ordeal truly began once the boys had reached the nearest railway line; away from public view. They subsequently inflicted unspeakable abuse beyond belief, culminating in placing his lifeless body on the tracks, aware that a train would be coming past in due course.

It was later discovered that James had still been alive for a significant amount of time after the brutality had concluded leaving him to die a heartbreakingly painful, lonely death.

After being tried in an adult court, the youngsters were sentenced to a minimum term of eight years detention and banned from ever contacting each other. A petition launched by The Sun newspaper was aimed at persuading the justice system to lock them up indefinitely but whilst it received over two hundred and eighty thousand signatures, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that they had “not received a fair trial.” Their minimum term expired in 2001 and on the grounds of good behaviour, the two were released and given new identities in June of the same year.

Under new proposals set out by the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill, the minimum age of responsibility for a crime would be raised by two years from ten to twelve; in line with most countries in Europe. If this proposal had been in place at the time of James Bulger’s heinous murder, Thompson and Venables would not have been charged and would be free of all criminal responsibility.

Admittedly, not all crimes committed by a child aged ten-years and above will command the same punishment but when two young boys can commit such a terrible crime, questions must be asked as to whether raising the age of criminal responsibility is the right move in twenty-first century Britain.

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