Scottish government to raise age of criminal responsibility

Under current law, child of eight can be deemed capable of committing crime in Scotland, the youngest in Europe

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The Independent Online

The Scottish Government is set to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 12, after calls from opposition parties for increased protections for vulnerable children. 

The current age of criminal responsibility, when a child is deemed capable of committing a crime and old enough to face any subsequent trial and conviction, is eight in Scotland, the lowest in Europe, and 10 in the rest of the United Kingdom. 

A report published in 2015 by a Government-appointed advisory group recommended the age of responsibility be increased to 12, in line with UN recommendations. 

“The case for change is clear and compelling. Having the lowest minimum age of criminal responsibility in Europe does not match with our progressive approach to youth justice and ambitions to give children the best start in life,” SNP's Early Years Minister Mark McDonald said. 

“Raising the age of criminal responsibility will mean people no longer face potentially damaging and life-altering consequences, such as a criminal record, for events that took place when they were a young child.

“I recognise that in exceptional cases appropriate safeguards are needed. Therefore we will ensure police powers to investigate harmful behaviour by under 12s, while there will be risk management and monitoring measures for those who need it.”

In 2015, Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes pushed for amendments to the criminal justice bill, however they were voted down at committee level. 

However, earlier this year, a Scottish Government consultation found 95 per cent of respondents supported an increase to 12 or above.

Mr McDonald thanked Ms McInnes for her efforts in pressing the issue.

"The thing that we've got to remember in all of this is that a child who offends is himself a victim. That's a child that we're talking about who's been let down. It may be parenting, it may be mental health services, it may be social services,” Leading QC Derek Ogg told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland. 

"The vast majority of children - and I'm talking about children until 16 - the vast majority of children who come into contact with criminal authorities and criminal courts are from profoundly abusive backgrounds, whether it's sexual abuse, criminal abuse or poverty.

"So we have to bear in mind that we are dealing with very vulnerable children when they come into contact with the criminal justice system."

However, Conservative MSP Douglas Ross questioned whether Holyrood could instil public confidence in the change. 

Scottish Labour gave its support , with MSP Claire Baker saying the argument had been “persuasively made”. 

Other opposition parties including the Scottish Greens also backed the move, with John Finnie describing the change to bring the policy in line with UN recommendations “very welcome”.

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said the current age of responsibility allowing for eight-year-olds to be treated as criminals was a "national embarrassment".

The amendments to the bill will be implemented in time for Scotland’s Year of Young People in 2018.