Criminal liability of children

Brothers accused of attempting to murder two young boys.

The issue of whether it is right to hold children fully responsible for their criminal acts is likely to be examined in the case of the two brothers accused of attempting to murder two young boys.  The brothers are aged 10 and 11.  The attack took place in Edlington, South Yorkshire on 4 April 09.

The law in this area has changed recently.  Previously children aged between 10 and 14 were presumed not to have criminal liability unless it could be proved that they knew what they were doing was seriously wrong.

The law, changed in October 1998 by s34 the Crime and Disorder Act, now provides that children of this age have the same criminal liability as adults.  Some may argue that this may seem strange as in other areas, such as marriage and voting, the law stipulates a different age.  

In criminal law the consequences for the individual can be extremely serious so one wonders how the law is able to move the goal posts around in this way.  However society and the families of victims have had reasons to confront these questions in recent years with the apparent increase in knife and gun crime involving young persons.    

The courts can treat children aged between 10 and 14 differently if found guilty when it comes to sentencing.

The House of Lords upheld the presumption that children of this age are incapable of committing a crime as recently as 1996 in C (a minor).  However by this time the legal fraternity had concerns about whether the law needed to be changed.  Those of you who are law students will know that just because the House of Lords has concerns it is not enough and Lord Lowry for one expressed the view that if the law were to be changed then that ought to be a matter for Parliament.

The case of C (a minor) 1996 concerned a boy, seen holding the handlebars of a motorcycle while another youth tampered with the chain and the padlock.  The boy was challenged and ran away (ordinarily this is enough to cause the individual a problem because if he was not doing anything wrong why did he run away?).  The boy was convicted and appealed against conviction which eventually reached the House of Lords.  Their Lordships firmly supported the presumption but the presumption was removed shortly afterwards by the Crime and Disorder Act.

The Crown Prosecution Service have now announced (3 September 2009) that they reached a decision not to pursue the attempted murder charges following consultations with the victims' families.  The brothers , now aged 10 and 12, have entered guilty pleas to the lesser offence of causing grievous bodily harm with intent under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Full details of the horrific attack have now come out at Sheffield Crown Court.  The older victim had a sink dropped on his head and one brother had a noose put round his head.  One was burned with a cigarette on his eyelids and ear.

The younger brother had a stick rammed into his arm and the wound was burned with cigarettes.

One of the attackers told the younger brother to "go away and kill himself" .

Both brothers were seriously injured and had bricks thrown at them and were repeatedly stamped on.  The account goes on and included two charges of intentionally causing a child to engage in a sexual activity.

Apparently on the day of the attack the boys should have been at the local police station to answer questions about an attack on another boy a week earlier.  The defendants were it seems well known to the police as trouble makers and in care at the time.

The case is likely to cause the spotlight to turn on such issues as parental control or the lack of it as well as the issue of whether any agency involved including Social Services ought to have acted earlier or whether anything else could have been done to prevent the boys wreaking havoc and harm.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Keith, will hear reports and visit the ravine which was the site of the attacks before the boys are sentenced later this year.  The social background of these boys and the extent to which their circumstances are taken into account may also invite comment and criticism depending upon the views and experiences of members of the public.  Watch this space.


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