Boys sentenced for trying to rape girl aged 8

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The Independent Online

A judge today hit back at critics of the trial of two boys who tried to rape an eight-year-old girl as he sentenced them each to three-year supervision orders.

Mr Justice Saunders said the ordeal of their young victim must not be forgotten and told those commenting on the case: "Hindsight is a wonderful thing."

The boys were aged 10 last October when the girl told their mother that she had been assaulted in Hayes, west London.

They were found guilty of two charges of attempted rape by a 10-2 majority at the end of an Old Bailey trial but cleared of rape.

The court heard the boys lured the girl into some flats, then took her into a stairwell, a lift and a bin shed before continuing their assault in a field.

At one point, the girl told the court, they threw her scooter into a bush and refused to retrieve it unless she did what they told her.

Jurors rejected defence claims that the boys - one of whom was described as a model pupil by his teacher - had just been naughty or playing a game like doctors and nurses.

But after the verdicts, critics said the handling of the case was "absolutely wrong" and a Court of Appeal judge expressed "dismay" at the circumstances.

Following today's sentence, the NSPCC said the Government should now review the age of criminal responsibility.

Now both aged 11, the boys were told in advance of today's hearing, through their lawyers, that they would not face custody, after the judge saw a report saying they were worried about being locked up.

They chatted excitedly as they were brought into court with their mothers and solicitors through a side door, though a barrister for one of the boys claimed the youngster had found the surroundings of the Old Bailey "daunting".

As in their trial, the judge and lawyers dispensed with wigs and gowns and the young defendants were allowed to sit in the well of the court instead of the dock, while the judge sat in a lower position than normal, at the clerk's bench.

He told the boys: "The jury decided that you did something very wrong which, if you had been older, would have very serious consequences for you.

"But you are very young, and while I do not accept that what happened was a game, I do accept that you did not realise how serious what you were doing was."

The judge added: "Because you are so young the court is mainly concerned with doing what is best for you with the aim of ensuring that you do not do anything like this again."

He said they must be helped to understand how serious what they did was, with the help of social workers to "train, guide and educate" them. Any custodial sentence would be "counter-productive".

Their three-year supervision order was coupled with a 12-month parenting order and the boys were placed on the sex offenders' register for two and a half years.

The judge said: "It may sound from all this that I am forgetting the little girl involved. I do not.

"Everyone will sympathise with her for what she has gone through. Not only what happened to her as the victim of these offences, but also to have to give evidence about them.

"I hope that she will be given all the help that she undoubtedly deserves to get over her experiences. I very much hope that she and her family will not be forgotten by the authorities."

The judge said there had been an "informed debate" about the trial, but it was for Parliament and not him to decide the age of criminal responsibility and for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide on whether to take cases to court.

But he said lessons must be learned about how to handle the "very rare cases" involving allegations against young children "as fairly as possible".

The case had also raised the issue of how "very young children" should give their evidence in a Crown Court while causing the "least possible harm" to them.

He said he would be submitting a report on the case to the Lord Chief Justice.

The judge made a "plea" to "those who may comment on this case".

"Can I urge everybody to remember that hindsight is a wonderful thing and what might seem perfectly obvious in retrospect may have appeared less obvious at the time?" he said.

Following today's sentencing NSPCC chief executive Andrew Flanagan said: "The circumstances of this case are such that the age of criminal responsibility should now be reviewed by the Government."

Following the trial in May, there were calls for changes in the way children are dealt with in criminal courts.

The boys may have become the youngest yet to have had to sign the sexual offenders' register, following the jury verdicts.

Last month they lost a Court of Appeal challenge against their convictions but Lord Justice Hughes spoke of the "dismay" that three such young children should take part in a Crown Court trial.

He also said there was concern about the effect of a "publicly staged trial in this arena on the ability of a little girl to move on with her life".

The Ministry of Justice has said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke would consider "very carefully" any matters that might be raised by the Lord Chief Justice following the case.