Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Sunday, 1 March 2009

Scots criminal age to go up to 12

Child in woods
Scotland had the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe

The age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is to be raised from eight to 12, ministers have confirmed.

It will bring Scotland into line with most of Europe, but the Scottish Government said the rise would not mean "letting off" younger offenders.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said it was more appropriate to deal with them in the children's hearings system.

The minimum age at which a child can be charged and brought before a court is 10 in the rest of the UK.

The proposals form part of wide-ranging justice reforms being brought forward by the Holyrood government.

The forthcoming Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, if passed, would also end a law allowing "unruly" teenagers who have not been convicted of an offence to be put behind bars.

The move was welcomed by police, justice and prison officials, although the Conservatives opposed plans to raise the age, while Labour raised further concerns.

The age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 10, although the UK Government is facing calls for an increase, most recently from Rod Morgan, the former head of the Youth Justice Board.

Prison is no place for children
Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary

Mr MacAskill said: "There is no good reason for Scotland to continue to have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe.

"Most importantly, the evidence shows prosecution at an early age increases the chance of re-offending - so this change is about preventing crime."

The justice secretary added: "This change does not mean any eight to 11-year-olds will be let off. Rather, they will be held to account in a way that is appropriate for their stage of development and ensures that we balance their needs with the need to protect our communities."

No eight-year-old has been prosecuted in an adult court in Scotland in the last five years, according to official figures, while 2,400 eight to 11-year-olds were referred on offence grounds in 2007-08 to children's hearings, a volunteer-led system which aims to address youth-offending based on their welfare needs.

'Hardened criminals'

Mr MacAskill also said he wanted to end the use of "unruly certificates", used to detain, in prison, 14 and 15-year-olds charged with serious crimes and deemed to be of "unruly character".

The number of youngsters remanded in prison custody fell from 27 in 2006-07 to 13 the following year - but Mr MacAskill insisted: "Prison is no place for children.

"By allowing more youngsters to be placed in secure care instead of locked up in a prison alongside hardened criminals, we will ensure the secure estate can be used to benefit both vulnerable young people and the wider community."

The Scottish Liberal Democrats embraced the proposals and, while Labour backed a review of the age limit, the party said the argument for raising it to 12 had to be tested.

Scottish Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken said the case for the increase had not been made.

"The fact that so few under-12s have been charged shows that the current law is being applied with common sense and only in exceptional cases," he added.

The decision to raise the age to 12 was a key recommendation of an earlier review by the Scottish Law Commission, as well as one of the conclusions of a United Nations investigation into child rights.

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