Crime responsibility age may rise

Justice Minister David Ford
Justice Minister David Ford

The age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland should rise from 10 to 12, the Justice Minister has told the Assembly.

David Ford needs to secure the agreement of his Executive colleagues if the limit is to be changed.

While it is proposed that the age is raised by two years, it could remain at 10 for the most serious crimes.

Mr Ford said: “Personally, I agree with the overwhelming majority of those who responded to the public consultation that 10 is just too young to be dealt with by the weight of a criminal justice system.

“Medical research on brain development around understanding consequences and social policy research on the negative impact of criminalising young children tells us that we should seek non-criminal justice interventions for the very small number of children in this age group who offend.”

Mr Ford acknowledged that the move does not have cross-party support but said he was committed to pressing ahead.

A wide-ranging independent review of the youth justice system recommended that the limit was increased.

Outlining progress in implementing the review, Mr Ford said he accepted that recommendation.

Any change in the law would mean children aged 10 and 11 would no longer be held criminally responsible for minor offences.

Last year the number of children in that age group who passed through the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland was 24 - all were accused of minor crimes.

Six years ago, the Irish Republic raised its age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 with the exception of the most serious cases. In Scotland, the age is 12 with consideration being given to an increase, however in England and Wales the minimum age remains at 10.

Mr Ford added: “We should try to take a rational decision rather than one swayed by prejudice or the very rare event which occurs in other jurisdictions and which there has been nothing comparable here - as far as my officials can trace in Northern Ireland, ever.”

The review was a requirement of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement that saw security powers devolved from Westminster to Stormont.

The independent panel of reviewers made 31 recommendations.

One was the introduction of statutory time limits for all youth justice cases so they do not drag on for many months.

Mr Ford has committed to introducing such timing constraints by the end of the current Assembly term.

Reviewers also said under-18s should no longer be sent to the Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre in south Belfast.

As of last week, no under-18s were housed in the centre.

All offenders under-18 are now detained at the Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor.

DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the Stormont Justice Committee, said more must be done to engage with young people before they break the law.

He said: “In regards to early intervention this is something I think this whole house will wholeheartedly welcome and recognise the need before people even engage in anti-social behaviour or before they have contact with the criminal justice system, we need to be doing more to identify areas at risk and families at risk in conjunction with health and education and the justice system to engage in serious programmes of early intervention.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said the plans to increase the age of criminal responsibility were foolish.

He said: “Why waste time and effort on a proposal which is patently stillborn?”