The age of criminal responsibility: our legislators leap into action

The Scottish Parliament has agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to twelve.  Now there is pressure on the English government to raise criminal responsibility from the age of ten, which is where it’s been since 1963.   Under English law, there are special rules governing children aged 10-14, and there is even talk of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

It’s more than forty years since I studied law, and at the time everyone was confidently saying that the age of criminal responsibility was set to go up any day now. (One social policy textbook of the time said it already had done, because the author had no reason to suppose it wouldn’t have happened by the time the book came out.)   The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 was initially made, if I have it right, by the 1960 Ingleby Committee, nearly sixty years ago.  In England, the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 raised the age from eight to ten (s.16.1); and then the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act raised it to fourteen (s.4).  You may reasonably blink at the last part of that, because it never happened.  The Act was passed, but it needed a commencement order to come into force,  and the order was never made – basically, no Secretary of State had the courage to do anything about it.  Eventually the provision was removed by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which had a tidying-up provision to cancel laws that hadn’t been brought into force.

I’ve heard it said that making Acts of Parliament is a national sport; no-one should take them too seriously.  It’s a reminder that campaigns can’t afford to stop when the legislation is passed.  It’s also perhaps a reminder of something Churchill once said about another country.  You can always rely on our governments to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives.

One comment

  1. Ian Davidson

    Hi Paul. I like your last para. I have always been interested in policy implementation (I wrote a dissertation on the topic for a masters degree at Strathclyde in 1990; the quality was average and the main prediction I came to re the role of the CNAA in academic validation etc turned out to be completely wrong; subsequently decided that going beyond masters level was too ambitious!). The Holyrood Parliament is filled with good people with good intentions (bar a few). However the politicians equate talking about something with actually doing something about it. They pass a new law and think they are wonderful but it’s what happens after the law is passed that really counts. It’s like equating personal day dreaming with actual action & outcome – not the same thing at all! Child law is of course complex and has not kept pace with actual changes in society. The relative freedoms I had as a child and young person in 60s (first went alone on a bus when I was 6 years old) and 70s (started boozing when I was 15, probably why my brain cells are dying off!) are like another country.

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