Thursday, March 19, 2020

Lord Dholakia's campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility

The BBC play Responsible Child, shown just before Christmas, questioned the low age of criminal responsibility in Britain and in particular our practice of trying children as young as 10 in front of a jury as though they were adults.

This is a cause the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia has long been fighting. Before the general election was called he had succeeded in taking a bill through the Lords to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and he has promised to continue this campaign.

Here he is moving the second reading of his bill in September 2017 and talking about the trial of the killers of James Bulger:
Most foreign commentators were amazed that children of that age should be tried in an adult Crown Court. They questioned whether such young children could really understand the complexities of a lengthy criminal prosecution and trial; whether they should have appeared in the full glare of media coverage; whether they understood all the issues and the language of the trial; whether they could give sensible instructions to their lawyers; and whether their decision not to give evidence was simply because they were frightened of speaking in such a setting. 
Even though some changes have been made to court processes involving children since then, it remains true that exposing such young children to a criminal trial is no way to achieve justice. 
The scene from Responsible Child above - click on the image to go to a video on Twitter - conveys well the absurdity of pretending that a traumatised child can participate meaningfully in his own trial.

It is also reminds us how good the performance by the young lead, Billy Barratt, was. Judging by Twitter, his emotional scenes towards the end of the play made the nation cry, but here he is beautifully understated.

If you read Lord Dholakia's speech in full - the whole debate is worth reading - you will find that he says:
A 30 year-old with the mental age of a 10 year-old child would probably be regarded as unfit to plead, so why do we see a child of 10 as capable of participating in the criminal justice process?
I suspect he and the writer of Responsible Child had spoken to the same experts.

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