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NIHRC welcomes the Department of Justice consultation on raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility

06 Jan 2023

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission welcomes the Department of Justice’s consultation on raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility and is encouraged by the opportunity to build a more progressive and welfare-orientated approach to youth justice in Northern Ireland.

We are committed to protecting and promoting the rights and interests of children and young people. At 10 years old, NI currently has the lowest minimum age of criminal responsibility in Europe, meaning that children as young as 10 can be prosecuted for criminal offences and be brought before a court. The Department of Justice are currently consulting on proposals to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old.

The following points summarise the NIHRC’s response to the consultation, as informed by international human rights standards.

The Department should, to satisfy the human rights standard and recommendations, consider raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) requires States to establish a minimum age of criminal responsibility. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice advise that it should not be fixed at too low an age “bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and intellectual maturity”.

In 2019, the UN CRC Committee advised all States to set the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old, in accordance with:

“Documented evidence in the fields of child development and neuroscience [which] indicates that maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning is still evolving in children aged 12 to 13 years due to the fact that their frontal cortex is still developing. Therefore, they are unlikely to understand the impact of their actions or to comprehend criminal proceedings.”[i]

The NIHRC recommends raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in NI to at least 14 years old. Additionally, we suggest further consideration is given to a higher minimum age of 15 or 16, in light of recent research on adolescence that demonstrates how rapid brain development between the ages of 10 to 16 can affect risk-taking, decision-making and impulse control.[ii]

No exceptions to the minimum age are necessary or proportionate and would not comply with the relevant standards or recommendations

The UN CRC Committee have highlighted its concerns with youth justice systems that permit exceptions to the use of a lower minimum age of criminal responsibility. The NIHRC recommends that the Department of Justice discounts any provision for exceptional cases, even in serious cases. The evidence is the same, whether the offence alleged is one of seriousness or not. We echo the UN CRC Committee that, “such practices are usually created to respond to public pressure and are not based on a rational understanding of children’s development”.[iii]

In cases of serious offences, we acknowledge that behaviour still requires an effective investigation by the Police Service NI to ensure the protection of victims and/or potential victims and to identify children who may need appropriate intervention or more intensive support. However, that is a very different issue to setting the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

Managing harmful behaviour and supporting welfare needs

Research has shown that the impact of criminalisation from a young age is more likely to result in a child developing a “criminal identity”, leading to stigma and discrimination.[iv] As a result, children can experience disruption to education, loss of positive relationships, thereby increasing their exposure to offending communities and drug use. All in all, the evidence shows that it leads to an increased likelihood of reoffending, putting others and themselves at greater risk.[v]

Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is critical for reducing the number of children who experience the harmful effects of the justice system. However, the NIHRC highlights that any subsequent proposals should clearly set out how the Department of Justice, in partnership with other NI Executive Departments, will effectively respond to children above and below the minimum age who are displaying harmful or risky behaviour. This should include the range of evidence-based interventions available that focus on providing better outcomes for children, particularly those in vulnerable situations.

In 2022, the Criminal Justice Inspection NI reported that children in the justice system are repeatedly breaking bail conditions or reoffending because they would rather be in custodial care than at home or in the community.[vi] This is indicative of an approach to youth justice that is not currently meeting the needs of these children, their families or society.

The NIHRC highlights the importance of moving towards a more welfare-orientated system that supports children to understand appropriate behaviour through a range of child-friendly and multidisciplinary initiatives that focus on reintegration back into the community. This will require further investment in early intervention programmes and treatment pathways that support children in their family, community and peer groups.

[i] CRC/C/GC/24, 'UN CRC Committee General Comment No 24: Children's Rights in the Child Justice System' 18 September 2019, at para 22.

[ii] CRC/C/GC/20, ‘UN Committee on the Rights of the Child General Comment No. 20: the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence’ 6 December 2016.

[iii] CRC/C/GC/24, 'UN CRC Committee General Comment No 24: Children's Rights in the Child Justice System', 18 September 2019, at para 25.

[iv] Department of Justice, ‘A Review of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland’ (DoJ, 2011).

[v] Local Government Association, ‘Supporting the youngest children in the youth justice system: what works to reduce offending and improve outcomes?’ (LGA, 2022).

[vi] Criminal Justice Inspection NI, ‘An Announced Inspection of Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre 22 – 28 January 2022’ (CJINI, 2022), at page 4.

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