LEADING ARTICLE : A legal charter for innocents

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The Independent Online
The Law Lords yesterday delivered a ruling that might easily be mistaken for a delinquents' charter, a carte blanche for junior shoplifters. Their lordships will be accused of setting wild youthful criminals free to roam beyond the reach of justice. They upheld an ancient law stating that those aged between 10 and 14 can be convicted of a criminal offence only if the prosecution proves that the offender fully appreciated that an act was wrong. The ruling means that a 13-year-old who repeatedly steals cars or burgles homes could, in theory, "get off" again and again. A plea of moral ignorance might save the juvenile.

To many people the Law Lords' decision will seem to be a travesty of justice. Indeed, the judges themselves called in their ruling for the law to be reviewed by parliament. Most people would contend that children can safely be assumed to understand the difference between right and wrong at 10, the youngest that a person can, in principle, be considered criminally responsible for his or her actions.

Most young people are self-confident and mature at an earlier age than in the past. Many 14-year-olds know a great deal more than their peers of an earlier, more innocent age; accordingly, they are treated more like small adults than members of a discrete group known as children. Surely, the argument goes, youngsters who now enjoy so many rights traditionally reserved for older people should accordingly be assumed to understand when they do wrong?

A "yes" answer seems obvious. There is increasingly vocal pressure to change the law so that children aged 10 and over are considered to be fully developed moral citizens. But before joining the populist campaign against child criminals, we should appreciate that for six centuries, through less liberal times than our own, the law has for good reason given special protection to children under 14.

Justice would be damaged now if that protection were removed. Young adolescents are not the moral equivalents of adults. Children may, even as infants, be able to recognise differences between right and wrong: a young child soon distinguishes between actions that are praised and those that are punished. But full moral sensibility amounts to more than this. Most children are quite old before they can empathise with the victims of their actions, and so really understand why they should not do certain things. Home Office research demonstrates the difficulty that repeat offenders have in developing this faculty.

Children mature at various paces: the law must, for the sake of fairness, make allowance for different rates of development. It would also be absurd to have a system under which a child could bear no criminal responsibility up to the age of 10, but, once past that point, be regarded essentially as a fully fledged adult.

We should not be rushed into changes that could criminalise members of a generation before they really know what being a criminal is. Children may have changed a great deal, but they have yet to outgrow the need for special legal protection that the Law Lords rightly endorsed yesterday.