Pragmatism didn’t work – Time for Vision
The Centre for Children’s Rights (CCR) at Queen's University Belfast are delighted to host this blog series in partnership with the Children’s Law Centre, Include Youth, NIACRO and VOYPIC. Academics within the CCR, in partnership with some of these organisations, co-hosted a seminar at Queen’s in 2015 attended by the then Minister for Justice, David Ford in which we discussed the very same issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland. It is disappointing that little has been progressed in the intervening years. This blog series represents our joint commitment to keeping debate and discussion about raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) on the public and political agenda.
The age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland is 10 years old. It remains one of the lowest in Europe and around the world. The Children’s Law Centre, Include Youth, NIACRO and VOYPIC are calling for the age to be raised to 16 in line with UN recommendations. Read the first post in this series here.
I have worked in criminal justice in one form or another my whole career and have been involved with Youth Justice in NI since 1998. The children’s rights movement along with some partners in the statutory sector have ensured that NI resisted some of the most draconian developments that happened in GB at the turn of the century. It is, also, fair to say that there has been reform here since 1998 with the implementation of the Justice (Children) NI Order and the Criminal Justice Review, 2000. And in 2010 when Justice was finally devolved our big hope was that the Youth Justice Review and in again partnership, the children’s rights movement worked hard to ensure that the terms of reference would ensure that we had a rights compliant youth justice system. The recommendations when published, a year later, whilst not perfect really gave me hope.
The age at which children can be held criminally responsible is 10 years in Northern Ireland (as well as in England and Wales). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have consistently raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility across the UK. The Youth Justice Review, 2011, made a clear recommendation (29) that the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) should be raised to 12, with immediate effect, and then further consideration should be given to an increase to 14 within 3 years. We prepared for the public and political debate on raising the age and waited patiently for government to act.
Although the Minister accepted recommendation 29 and made some effort to attain political consensus, there were no processes, formal or otherwise, to assess public opinion to inform a consultation on policy and legislative changes.
Therefore, almost my last act as Director of Include Youth was to support the launch of the Raise the Age Campaign in 2015. It was not an easy decision to make the recommendation 29 the key ask even though we knew a child`s rights compliance approach would have been well beyond 12. I felt that, by asking for anything more would have been a step too far and we would not garner the necessary support needed to get it over the line. We were trying to read the political landscape and bring those in opposition with us.
We essentially were saying that we would accept less than the UN Committee’s recommendation for our children. All these years later I still think about that decision and still believe it was pragmatic to tie the campaign to the YJR which was more likely to succeed. However, 6 ½ years later is it clear that we were overly optimistic that our government would do the right thing. That lesson has been learnt.
A lot has happened since the publication of the Youth Justice Review all of which has added to the evidence of the need to raise MACR. We have as a society learnt more about how trauma and other adverse childhood experiences affect children and young people. The UN Committee revised its position on this issue publishing General Comment 24 in September 2019, and now encourages State parties to take note of the scientific evidence concerning child development particularly brain development and subsequently adopt a minimum age of criminal responsibility of at least 14 years of age.
The children and communities of this jurisdiction deserve the highest standards of rights, no longer should “at least” apply to us. The return of devolution in January 2020 provided an opportunity for the Minister of Justice to finally begin the formal process to implement this and all the outstanding recommendations of the Youth Justice Review. Regrettably we have yet to see this happen and the opportunity for legislative reform during this mandate has probably been lost.
But the next mandate is around the corner and the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility must be raised to 16. Our children will get better outcomes and communities will be safer. The time for an incremental approach is long past and now is the time to get it right.
About the Author
Koulla Yiasouma took up appointment as NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) in March 2015. She trained as a social worker and previously worked in probation, NI Women’s Aid and prior to her appointment was the Director of Include Youth for almost 17 years.