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The Age of Criminal Responsibility in Scotland

A new piece of legislation has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament. If passed, the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill will increase the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from eight to twelve. 

About the Bill

The Government explains that the Bill will further embed the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish life, and will also mean that the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Scotland will become the highest in the UK, compared to age ten in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

Looking at the Bill in more detail, it contains provisions that will mean:

  • fewer children end up entering the criminal justice system as they grow into adulthood;
  • the age of criminal responsibility will be brought into line with the current minimum age of prosecution in Scotland;
  • any information on harmful or concerning behaviour involving children under the age of 12 will no longer be disclosed automatically but will be subject to independent review on a case by case basis;
  • harmful behaviour involving children under 12 will continue to be addressed with bespoke new measures introduced to ensure police can thoroughly investigate the most serious incidents; and
  • victims of harm will continue to receive appropriate support and information.

Children’s Hearing System

The Government explains that where appropriate, the behaviour of children under twelve will continue to be addressed in the children’s hearings system, which is Scotland’s unique care and justice system for children and young people that aims to ensure the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children and young people through a lay tribunal.

Under the new legislation, it will no longer be possible to refer children aged 8-11 to a children’s hearing on the ground that they have committed an offence and no child will receive a conviction for their behaviour when under twelve.

Law Society Welcomes the Bill

The Law Society of Scotland has welcomed the news that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is to be raised.

“Scotland’s age of criminal responsibility, at eight years of age, is currently the lowest in Europe and we are very pleased to see the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill introduced to the Scottish Parliament,” commented Stuart Munro, from the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal law committee.

“The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that setting the age of criminal responsibility below 12 is not ‘internationally acceptable’ and we have argued for several years that a child of eight is too young to be held criminally responsible,” he said. “The interests of the child must be paramount and it is crucial that their welfare is the focus of attention, even in the difficult circumstances of offending behaviour. We do not think that children under the age of 12 should have their actions recorded as criminal.”

“There are also inconsistencies in our law in that the age of criminal responsibility is currently eight years, but the age at which a child can be prosecuted is 12,” he added. “This creates confusion in people’s understanding of criminal law and how it relates to children. Raising the age will bring it in line with the existing age of criminal prosecution in Scotland, providing clarity in the law, and will ensure that children are not treated and then labelled as offenders because of things they did when they were under 12 years old.”

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