Leading article: Even child murderers deserve a fair trial

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THE EUROPEAN Commission of Human Rights' decision to allow the appeal of the two youngsters convicted for the murder of Jamie Bulger brings back images we would all rather forget. The closed-circuit camera footage of the toddler being led away by his assailants, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, will live in the mind just as long as the Moors murders, images of inhuman and unspeakable acts. Jamie's parents have every right to seek retribution for those acts, stricken with a grief we can only guess at.

But we must attempt to comprehend such crimes, if condemnation is not to replace reason. As the Commission put it yesterday, trials must not appear simply "an exercise in the vindication of public outrage". This was exactly what many yearned for at the time, John Major as Prime Minister recommending we "condemn a little more, and understand a little less". Unfortunately, that wish to punish has eclipsed two principles which should underpin the law: judicial independence, and fairness to the accused.

The Home Secretary of the time, Michael Howard, should not have interfered in setting a new minimum limit to the sentence, over and above that decided through proper judicial channels. This populist decision has endangered the conviction itself, first quashed in the domestic courts and now one of the subjects of the European appeal. Ministers should not interfere in this way again. The adult court in which the two boys were tried did try to accommodate the defendants' age: social workers were allowed into the courtroom, and shorter sessions were introduced. But as the Commission concludes, children should not have been tried there in the first place.

For all New Labour's reforms of the law on youth crime, often more crude and authoritarian than well-judged and precise, it remains the case that, for murder, juveniles face an adult criminal court. Thus all the defects of the Bulger trial - the high-octane media coverage of a trial held in public, the absence of evidence from the defendants, the sight of two 11-year-olds propped up on high chairs in the dock - could be repeated. This must end. Other countries operate a perfectly efficient juvenile justice system up to the age of 18, and it is time that we took this civilising step towards the European norm.

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