Lib Dem seeks changes in juvenile laws

Mr. Paul Sathianasan, Councillor of Newham, Lord Navnit Dholakia, Farokh Engineer (File)

Lord Dholakia says the Age of Criminal Responsibility should be increased from 10 to 12….reports Asian Lite News

Mr. Paul Sathianasan, Councillor of Newham, Lord Navnit Dholakia, Farokh Engineer (File)
Mr. Paul Sathianasan, Councillor of Newham, Lord Navnit Dholakia, Farokh Engineer (File)

Lord Dholakia, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Lords, said it is high time  to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12.

Advocating a Second Reading of his Private Member’s Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility Lord Dholakia, pointing out the inconsistent way children are treated in this country

The Bill proposes a change of the minimum age at which a child can be arrested or charged with a crime.

“At present children who are too young to attend secondary school can be prosecuted and receive a criminal record,” said Lord Dholakia. “Children are not regarded as fully competent to take informed decisions until later in adolescence.

“In all other areas of law,” he contrasted, “whether it is the age for buying a pet, the age for paid employment, the age of consent to sexual activity or the age of smoking and drinking, children are not regarded as fully competent to take informed decisions until later in adolescence.”

“This conflicting approach can be seen at its most ironic,” Lord Dholakia declared, where “a 30 year-old who had a mental age of a 10 year-old child would probably be regarded as unfit to plead and yet, by a strange twist of logic, a child of 10 is seen as capable of participating in the criminal justice process.”

Lord Dholakia said: “We must also accept that in any civilised society, from time to time, there will be heinous and serious crimes and it is how we deal with such crimes that determines how civilised we are,” as he addressed the Chamber.

The Bill, a testament to Lord Dholakia’s efforts to ameliorate the criminal justice system, aims to change the law so that children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the age of 12 years will not be tried in a criminal court for any offences.

Addressing the argument that just because it only affects a small number of young children, on average 300 per year, there is no reason to change the law, Lord Dholakia, argued that: “The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly stated that our minimum age of criminal responsibility is not compatible with our obligations under international standards on juvenile justice and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” and emphasised: ” what happens to up to 300 vulnerable children can hardly be regarded as a matter of little importance.”

Citing research showing “that early adolescence (under 13-14 years of age) is a period of marked neurodevelopmental immaturity, during which children’s capacity is not equivalent to that of an older adolescent or adult,” Lord Dholakia said: “[t]his does not mean that children aged 10 or 11 are not responsible for their actions, but that on any reasonable interpretation of the evidence they must be regarded as less responsible than an older adolescent or an adult.”

Pointing out that the age of criminal responsibility is the lowest in Europe, Lord Dholakia also raised concerns that at this young age a child accused of committing a serious crime, such as violent and/or sexual crimes, would be tried in the Crown Court. “The evidence shows,” he stressed: ” that children who are dealt with through the criminal justice process are more likely to reoffend than those who are diverted from the criminal justice system and dealt with in other ways.” There is also the negative effect whereby “children who are officially labelled as offenders often react by trying to live up to the label and acting in increasingly delinquent ways to achieve status in front of their friends,” Lord Dholakia reflected .

Highlighting the difficult backgrounds that many of these children are brought up in, which often include “chaotic, dysfunctional and traumatic backgrounds involving a combination of poor parenting, physical or sexual abuse, conflict within families, substance abuse or mental health problems,” Lord Dholakia underlined the need to avoid children receiving a criminal record that would make employment more difficult in the future, and more importantly a lack of employment increasing the risk of reoffending.

“They need a welfare-based approach,” he stated, ” in secure care if necessary, to help them to face their unresolved trauma, to develop and mature emotionally, to reach an appropriate sense of guilt and to learn to control their emotional and aggressive impulses.” Citing the abhorrent killing of James Bulger and  understanding the argument for “exception[s] [to] be made for the most extreme cases, such as homicide or serious sexual offences” Lord Dholakia said: “I am willing to consider this point in Committee but my inclination at this stage is to resist making exceptions.”

Lord Dholakia was keen to reassure doubters that “taking 10 and 11 year-olds out of the criminal justice system would not mean doing nothing with children who offend.”

he outlined that they would be dealt with by way of intervention by children’s services teams, and, “[i]n the minority of cases where court proceedings are necessary, it would mean bringing children before family proceedings courts, which can impose compulsory measures of supervision and care”. This way, Lord Dholakia believed would not “put the public at risk;”and in the most serious cases, ” it could mean long-term detention in secure accommodation, ” arranged by way of “care proceedings rather than as a custodial punishment imposed in criminal proceedings.”

It was illogical to think that these children should be dealt with in the criminal courts just because they are capable of understanding  “right from wrong”. “Most six year-olds,” he said, “have a sense of right and wrong but no one suggests that they should be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Concluding his argument for change, Lord Dholakia, noting that the Government was not prepared to back the Bill, and that the Bishops supported this change in the law, reasoned:”… if there is one message I would like the Minister to take to the Secretary of State, it is that this time I have the church on my side: God is speaking on my behalf as well, so I hope there will be change at some stage.” Succinctly declaring: “[t]he simple proposition that [the Bill] contains, if enacted, would be an important step towards dealing with vulnerable, difficult and disturbed children in a way that befitted our civilised society”.