Judges rule under-14s know right from wrong

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CHILDREN aged between 10 and 14 know the difference between right and wrong, the High Court decided yesterday. In a landmark ruling it swept away the requirement that the Crown must prove offenders under 14 can make that distinction.

The judgment is certain to be challenged in the House of Lords. Lord Justice Mann, sitting with Mr Justice Laws, said the common law rule that the prosecution must prove offenders aged between 10 and 14 knew what they had done was morally or legally wrong before they could be convicted was 'utterly outrageous'.

Children under 10 are presumed to be incapable of committing crime: in the James Bulger case, the judge accepted that the two 11-year-olds convicted of the boy's murder knew what they were doing was wrong.

Criticising the under-14 rule as 'divisive and perverse,' Lord Justice Mann said it was looked upon with 'increasing unease and perhaps rank disapproval' by judges. He said youths whose understanding of right and wrong were fragile were most likely to commit crime, yet that 'outdated and unprincipled presumption' was used to secure acquittal. The prosecution was required to prove moral responsibility although it was moral irresponsibility that led to the crime.

The availability of non-custodial remedial sentences supported the argument that those under 14 should not be held immune from the criminal justice system but managed within it. Otherwise they were free to commit further crimes.

The court dismissed an appeal by a Merseyside boy against his conviction by Liverpool magistrates for interfering, when he was 12, with a motorcycle with intention to commit theft. The defence had argued the prosecution failed to prove he knew his act was 'seriously wrong'.

The ruling was attacked by the Law Society, which favours putting offenders under 14 into the care of social services. Louise Garner, of its criminal law committee, said: 'It is wrong that such an important law be changed like this without the opportunity for full discussion.

'It removes a valuable discretion from the courts and I hope the Lords will reverse it.'

However, the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has lobbied for tougher measures against juvenile recidivists, said the ruling reflected the 'common-sense approach'.