3 What the law says
In 1833, a 9 year old boy was sentenced to death for pushing a stick through a cracked window so that he could extract a small bundle of papers from a London print shop. The value of the papers was about two pence but it didn’t stop the court from passing the death sentence (Morris et al., 1980). The law, as it stood then, would see the crime not the child. In this section you’ll explore the limits of that vision and how it has been changed.
Activity 3 Criminal responsibility
To find out a bit more about the legal background to the age of criminal responsibility, read this article on the subject by Sue Bandalli (from the Dictionary of Youth Justice).
Identify the four relevant Acts of Parliament mentioned in the article and make a note of them. Bandalli refers to a Latin phrase in her discussion. Write it down and what it means in English and ask yourself why it is significant. Record your thoughts as they may be useful when you complete the quiz at the end of this session.
The article mentions the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, the Children Act 1989 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Each of these has been very significant in shaping the way the criminal law operates around children’s behaviour. Bandalli mentions that the 1963 Act used the term doli incapax – a Latin phrase meaning ‘incapable of evil’. The law says that under the age of 10 a child’s mental capacity is so different from that of an adult that they must be seen as being ‘incapable of evil’ and cannot be held responsible for their actions. Another way of saying this is that a child does not understand the full moral or social implications of their actions. A child of nine cannot, in law, steal something. It is assumed they cannot know the full consequences and contexts of their action – they are doli incapax.
For many people who study or work in youth justice the provisions in the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 represent a high-water mark in efforts to prioritise the welfare of the child, to put their needs before their deeds. However, the provisions were never enacted and in 1998 the New Labour Government confirmed and reinforced that children aged 10 or above were suitable for criminal prosecution.
The age at which it is appropriate to take children to court continues to be a controversial and important topic. It features in the next section.