A Court of Appeal ruling had changed the law a year ago to make 10-year- olds as culpable as adults. The law before that - and the position again after the House of Lords judgment yesterday - is that for children aged 10-14 the prosecution has to prove offenders knew what they were doing was "seriously wrong". The best known case of this was in 1993 when a jury found that two boys who had killed the toddler Jamie Bulger had realised the gravity of their crime.
The Home Office last considered - and rejected - reform of the law, which is out of line with most developed countries, in 1990. Last night Home Office officials said Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was "considering" the Lords' judgment.
Five law lords said that, as the law now stood, they had no alternative but to allow an appeal against a High Court decision removing the fundamental legal requirement which has protected generations of children from punishment for criminal actions.
But Lord Lowry, in his leading judgment, said it was time for a much- needed new look at an undoubted problem. "This is a classic case for parliamentary investigation, deliberation and legislation," he said.
In the High Court, Lord Justice Mann and Mr Justice Laws had described the rule, highlighted in the Jamie Bulger murder trial, as "utterly outrageous" and outdated.
The Law Lords upheld an appeal by a defendant, now 15, against his conviction at the age of 12 for interfering with a motor cycle with intent to commit theft. The boy was fined £60, payable by his mother, who was also bound over to ensure his future good behaviour. The magistrate at Liverpool youth court had decided the boy knew what he was doing was seriously wrong merely because he had run away from the police. The Court of Appeal accepted this was inadequate proof that he had known he was wrong, but then changed the law, so upholding the conviction.
Lord Lowry said the High Court judges had achieved their object in part by drawing renewed attention to serious shortcomings in an important area of criminal law, "presumption".
"I believe that the time has come to examine further a doctrine which appears to have been inconsistently applied and which is certainly capable of producing inconsistent results, according to the way in which courts treat the presumption and depending on the evidence to rebut it which is available in each case."
One solution was to abolish the presumption with or without an increase in the minimum age of criminal responsibility. But that could expose children to the full criminal process at an earlier age than in most western European countries.
An alternative was to give a youth court exclusive jurisdiction - except in family matters - over children up to the age of 14 or 16, applying only civil remedies for anti-social behaviour under 10 or 12 years and both civil and punitive remedies above that age. "The distinction between the treatment and punishment of child "offenders" has popular and political overtones, a fact which shows that we have been discussing not so much a legal as a social problem, with a dash of politics thrown in, and emphasises that it should be within the exclusive remit of Parliament."
He said there was a need to study other systems, including that in Scotland, where normal criminal responsibility attaches to a child over eight.
Agreeing the appeal should be allowed, Lord Jauncey said it was "almost an affront to common sense" to presume, for example, that a boy of 12 or 13 who stole a high-powered car, damaged other cars, knocked down a policeman and then ran away was unaware that he was doing wrong.Reuse content