The age at which a child can be charged with a crime rises from 8 to 12 today, 17 December 2021, as the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 comes into force. Clan Childlaw welcomes this rise but cautions that Scotland should be aiming much higher.

Having an age of criminal responsibility is a requirement of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to incorporate earlier this year. However, in only raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12, Scotland is already out of step with emergent children’s rights thinking. In 2019 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child revised their guidance around the age of criminal responsibility, setting a minimum recommended age of at least 14. The UN Committee encourages member states to take note of recent scientific findings and consider a higher a higher minimum age of 15 or 16 years.

There are also questions about whether the age of criminal responsibility will feel like it has changed to many children who come into contract with the Children’s Hearing system. Given the age of criminal prosecution is already 12 and the small number of children referred to the Children Hearing’s system on offence grounds, we believe this change will have limited impact in practice.

Alison Reid, Principal Solicitor and Chief Executive of Clan Childlaw, said:

“At Clan Childlaw we seek to protect and strengthen children’s rights and improve their lives. This increase in the age of criminal responsibility is a step in the right direction, but we would like to see Scotland leading the way in children’s rights rather than trailing behind international standards.

As lawyers for children and young people, we know that involvement in the criminal justice system at a young age increases the likelihood that a child will continue to engage in behaviour which is harmful both to themselves and to others. We should be supporting children not criminalising them.”

The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act does require that the age of criminal responsibility be reviewed again in 3 years. However, given that it took 20 years to increase the age to 12 after the first recommendation from the Advisory Group on Youth Justice in June 2000, there will be a need to keep this under close scrutiny if Scotland is to have an age of criminal responsibility which is rights respecting.