Page last updated at 23:50 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 00:50 UK

Can children be criminals?

By Clive Coleman
Presenter, Law in Action, BBC Radio 4

A policeman talks to two young people

What is the right age to hold children responsible for their criminal acts? Eight? 10? 14? 18?

With a spate of violent crime being committed by seemingly ever younger people, the question has never been more difficult to answer, or more important.

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Plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from eight to 12 will leave England, Wales and Northern Ireland with the lowest such age in Europe, at just 10.

In Spain it is 16, in Belgium 18. So, should the rest of the UK follow Scotland? Or perhaps raise the age even higher?

At Thames Youth Court in east London, 15 year-old-Germaine (not his real name) pleaded guilty to a robbing a pizza delivery driver. But should he have been in court?

"I think it's a good thing because they will learn that this is what leads you into jail," his mother said.

The Bulger murder

Much of the debate that rages around the age of criminal responsibility is rooted in the 1993 prosecution of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the brutal murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool.

CCTV image showing Jon Venables and Robert Thompson leading James Bulger away
Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were 10 years old when they abducted and killed toddler James Bulger

Back then, in addition to the overwhelming national revulsion at the abduction and murder, there was also a heated debate as to whether two boys, aged 10 at the time of the killing, should stand trial for murder.

The case and the haunting, grainy CCTV images of the two boys leading the toddler from a shopping centre to his death still resonate powerfully today.

In recent years, however, new scientific evidence has shed further light on the way children's brains develop.

Knowing right from wrong

"There's a very substantial evidence base to show that children aged 10 are not fully mature," said Dr Eileen Vizard, a child psychiatrist with the NSPCC's Child Offender Service.

For society's own protection there should be the potential and the possibility of a 10-year-old being prosecuted
Laurence Lee
Solicitor in the Bulger murder case

"They show developmental immaturity in terms of their physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development," she said.

She points to recent evidence on the structure and functioning of young brains which suggests that development continues beyond adolescence and into the mid-20s.

Though children of 10 may know the difference between "big rights and big wrongs", Dr Vizard believes they do not have the capacity to participate fully and fairly in a criminal trial, and that 14 or 15 should be a bare minimum age for criminal responsibility.

Perhaps surprisingly though, Laurence Lee, the solicitor who represented Jon Venables, takes issue with that:

"It's impossible to say that you can't prosecute children of 10 because their brains aren't sufficiently developed. For society's own protection there should be the potential and the possibility of a 10-year-old being prosecuted.

Solicitor Laurence Lee (copyright Pinpoint Images)
Solicitor Laurence Lee believes lowering the age of criminal responsibility would be a mistake

"I think the crime rate would rocket if that sword of Damocles didn't exist over a young defendant's head."

And they are prosecuted.

Last year more than 11,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 13 were prosecuted in the criminal courts in England and Wales. In the 14 to 17-year-old category that rose to around 107,000.

In court

At Thames Youth Court, a small 13-year-old boy appeared on a charge of racially aggravated assault.

When aged 12, he had allegedly hit a girl he knew and called her a "Paki". The two lived on the same estate and the claimed injuries were relatively minor.

At a preliminary hearing in court the judge asked the Crown Prosecution Service whether it was really in the public interest that the case proceeded. It showed no inclination to discontinue it.

When he was asked which parts of the proceedings were difficult to follow, the boy replied, "All of it".

His mother said she thought it ridiculous that a full trial take place. She believes children should be dealt with outside court.

"Their parents should be spoken to, they should be warned," she said.

She was angry that following a one or two-day trial in a few months time, her son could be found guilty and would get a criminal record.

Other young people in court that day were there for a variety of assaults, thefts and robberies.

Those who pleaded guilty, or were found guilty, would also get a criminal record.

Norwegian law

In Norway, the age of criminal responsibility is 15 and there is a far more welfare-based approach to the problem of child offending.

Reidar Hjermann, the Norwegian Children's Ombudsman, believes 10 is far too young.

"A child does not choose to commit or not commit a crime," he said. "They do it because they have a difficult life."

Lynne Costello from Mothers Against Murder and Aggression (MAMAA), which supports families whose children have been murdered and provides education programmes for the young, disagrees.

"The kids know the law is soft," she said. "If we raise the age they will be getting younger people to carry their weapons or their drugs.

"We have to tell children 'you have done wrong', and if that means going through the court system that's what we have to do."

Setting the age of criminal responsibility is fantastically difficult. People do not want to demonise children, but worry about a younger generation with greater temptations and looser boundaries.

The government has no plans to raise the current age of 10, but many lawyers and child psychiatrists believe there is a strong case for doing so.

Law In Action will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 16 June at 1600 GMT. You can listen to the programme for seven days afterwards via the BBC iPlayer , or download the free podcast .

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