Let’s Stop Treating Eight-Year-Olds As Criminals, Says Lord Advocate

SCOTLAND’S chief prosecutor called yesterday for an increase in the age at which children can be held criminally responsible. Elish Angiolini, the Lord Advocate, told MSPs that eight-year-olds – who can currently be prosecuted – should not normally face the courts.

“I do consider that the age of competence of eight is extremely low,” she told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, which is considering the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill.

“It’s a much wider issue and one I think again needs considerable consideration by parliament at large rather than in the context of one particular bill.

“My policies are quite clear – I do not prosecute children where it can be avoided.”

Few countries in the world allow for those as young as eight to be regarded as criminal, although in Scotland, the vast majority of cases against children are handled by the children’s hearing system rather than the adult courts.

Ms Angiolini’s comments came in the final evidence-gathering session on the bill by the committee.

Some experts, including Kathleen Marshall, the children’s commissioner, have raised concerns that the bill could criminalise young teenagers for sexual experimentation.

The Scottish Government proposes to criminalise girls aged 13 to 15 who have sex with boys of the same age.

At present, only boys under 16 who have sex with a child of a similar age can be held criminally responsible, and the proposed legislation seeks to end this anomaly.

Asked about changes to how the law could affect under-16s, Ms Angiolini said: “The decision currently is that I do prosecute children for non-consensual offences against other children in circumstances where the public interest would merit that.”

She said it was “extremely rare” because young people were normally dealt with by the children’s hearing system.

“I have no wish as a chief prosecutor in this country to criminalise children unnecessarily,” she said.

Ms Angiolini said that young teenagers “experimenting” was different from a 15-year-old abusing a four-year-old.

Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, later rejected calls from Labour’s Cathy Craigie for a consultation among younger children on the impact of the bill, carried out by the government, before it is introduced.

But he said if the committee wanted to take evidence from younger children, the government would be prepared to facilitate this.

“That’s a disappointing answer and I’m sure there will be other members of the committee who will be disappointed by that,” Ms Craigie said.

Mr MacAskill also told the committee the government was looking into the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland, but said it was a matter “for another day”.

Ms Marshall later added her voice to calls for a review of the age of criminal responsibility.

But she also warned the bill may cause “more harm than good” in its current form. She said: “I very much welcome the Lord Advocate’s support for a review of the age of criminal responsibility which, at just eight years, remains lower than in the rest of the UK – ten years – and is one of the lowest in the world.

“However, this does not address the problem of the potential for the current bill to criminalise children as sex offenders, even when they are dealt with through the hearings system on offence grounds.

“Labelling eight-year-old children with difficult behaviour as criminals is of little help to anyone. These children need help, not condemnation.”

She added: “At this stage, with little information about what factors impact young people’s decisions and behaviour, there is a risk that these new laws – based on little more than conjecture, speculation and guesswork – will do more harm than good.”