After the age of criminal responsibility: a defence for children who offend

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In Scotland, the age of criminal responsibility is eight though children cannot be prosecuted until they are twelve. In England and Wales, for all purposes, the age is ten. This article argues that a further mechanism is needed to protect the young who do wrong within the criminal process and it argues for a new, bespoke defence, to be available to young people from the age of criminal responsibility until they attain the age of 18. It looks firstly at criminal capacity – what it is that needs to be understood fairly to hold anyone criminally responsible - and draws on material from developmental psychology and neuroscience, as well as looking at the child’s lived experience, to provide some evidence that the young may, without fault, lack this capacity. It then examines the use of age generally in law, and the age of criminal responsibility within this. Next, it considers existing lack of capacity defences – nonage; diminished responsibility; insanity (or mental disorder) and absence of mens rea - to consider their suitability for use by young and immature defendants. Finally, it presents a proposal for the form of the new defence, taking into account the need for balance with the public interest in conviction of the guilty. Throughout, it notes and analyses the Law Commission’s proposals in this respect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)327-341
Number of pages16
JournalNorthern Ireland Legal Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016


  • age of criminal responsibility
  • criminal defences
  • developmental immaturity
  • non-age
  • chilldhood and crime
  • criminal capacity
  • criminal law
  • juvenile justice


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