Holyrood bid to end 'unacceptable' Scottish criminal age of eight

A Holyrood bid to bring Scotland into line with the "international human rights’ community" and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 has been launched.

Silhouette of youths.
Silhouette of youths.

Scotland has the lowest age of criminality responsibility in Europe at just eight, despite laws having been passed two years ago that would have raised this to 12.

Ministers say they are "prioritising" areas of the legislation that will have the biggest impact on youngsters.

But a petition has now been lodged at the Scottish Parliament that says this doesn't go far enough and that it should be raised to 14 – a move that has the backing of human rights’ groups in Scotland.

Bruce Adamson has expressed concern at the low attendance rates at Scotland's education hubs during the pandemic.

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"Currently Scotland still has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe – at just eight years old," says petitioner Barry Donnan.

"More broadly it also remains one of the lowest in the world."

The Scottish Government is now being urged to take “urgent” action to address the situation.

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Mr Donnan adds: "The international human rights’ community's message is also extremely clear.

"The minimum acceptable age of criminal responsibility is 14 and that any age below that cannot be justified in human rights’ terms.

"Overall this is a wholly unacceptable situation for children in Scotland and it needs to be addressed as a matter of Parliamentary urgency in national debate that involves children and parents as priority stakeholders."

The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act, which was introduced in 2019, includes a provision to raise the criminal age of responsibility to 12, but this aspect of the legislation has not yet been implemented, with ministers seeking to prioritise changes which have the "most positive material effect" for children.

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The Scottish Government also says there is a distinction between the age of criminal responsibility and the age of criminal prosecution. The latter has been raised to 12, while children below 16 can only be prosecuted on the instructions of the Lord Advocate.

Ministers say that reviewing the age of criminal responsibility remains "high on this government's agenda", in response to the petition.

But a government response states: "We cannot put children, communities and victims at risk by rushing changes.”

The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act does oblige ministers to carry out a review of its operation within three years and with "a view to considering the future age of criminal responsibility”.

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"An advisory group has been established to assist with this work," the government response adds.

"Evaluation of the Act will ensure that operational learning and experience, about how the legislation and associated change programme operates for the under-12 age group, is taken into account as part of the overall consideration of a future age of criminal responsibility in Scotland."

Scotland's children commissioner Bruce Adamson is among those backing the call for change and raised "deep concerns" when the legislation two years ago failed to raise the age to 14.

"The message from the international human rights bodies is clear – the minimum acceptable age of criminal responsibility is 14, and that any age below that cannot be justified in human rights terms," he said at the time.

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