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Age of criminal responsibility

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Age of criminal responsibility

The defense of infancy is a form of defense known as an excuse so that defendants falling within the definition of an "infant" are excluded from criminal liability for their actions, if at the relevant time, they had not reached an age of criminal responsibility. After reaching the initial age, there may be levels of responsibility dictated by age and the type of offense committed.

Under the English common law the defense of infancy was expressed as a set of presumptions. A child under the age of seven was presumed incapable of committing a crime. The presumption was conclusive, prohibiting the prosecution from offering evidence that the child had the capacity to appreciate the nature and wrongfulness of what he had done. Children aged seven to fourteen (13 years 364 days 23'59'59" aged) were presumed incapable of committing a crime but the presumption was rebuttable. The prosecution could overcome the presumption by proving that the child understood what he was doing and that it was wrong.[1] Children fourteen and older were presumed capable of committing a crime. However, the child could rebut this presumption by establishing that because of his immaturity he was incapable of understanding what he had done or the wrongfulness of his conduct.[2]

UK and Ireland

England and Wales

Criminal responsibility is age 10 in England and Wales.[3] This is when a child becomes criminally responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions. From this age onwards, they can be prosecuted for any criminal offence in a Youth Court. In exceptional circumstances, most notably the case of the murder of James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993, children can be tried as an adult in an adult court.

From the age of 10 onwards, individuals are then considered an adult in the eyes of the law. Therefore, all punishment given by the courts or other law enforcement agencies will rest solely upon them.


Before July 1, 2010, a child had to be 15 years old to be charged with a crime. The maximum penalty regardless of the type of crime committed was 8 years imprisonment. After July 1, 2010, the age limit was lowered to 14 years. The limit of 8 years imprisonment was lifted. They cannot be sentenced to life without parole. On March 1, 2012 the age limit was raised back to 15 years.[4] Children aged between 12 and 14 are not allowed legal defense, but can be ordered to wear an ankle monitor by the social services. .[5]

The age of criminal responsibility

Governments enact laws to label certain types of activity as wrongful or illegal. Behaviour of a more antisocial nature can be stigmatized in a more positive way to show society's disapproval through the use of the word criminal. In this context, laws tend to use the phrase, "age of criminal responsibility" in two different ways:

  1. As a definition of the process for dealing with an alleged offender, the range of ages specifies the exemption of a child from the adult system of prosecution and punishment. Most states develop special juvenile justice systems in parallel to the adult criminal justice system. Here, the hearings are essentially welfare-based and deal with children as in need of compulsory measures of treatment and/or care. Children are diverted into this system when they have committed what would have been an offense as an adult.
  2. As the physical capacity of a child to commit a crime. Hence, children are deemed incapable of committing some sexual or other acts requiring abilities of a more mature quality.

Thus, each state is considering whether any given child has committed an offense, and given that answer, what the most appropriate measures would be for dealing with a child who has done what this child did. It is noted that, in some states, a link is made between infancy as a defense and defenses that diminish responsibility on the ground of a mental illness. Distinctions between children, young offenders, juveniles, etc. are used to denote matching levels of incapacity. The majority view is that this linkage is not constructive in that it implies that children are in some way mentally defective whereas they merely lack the judgment that comes with age and experience.


This is an aspect of the public policy of parens patriae. In the criminal law, each state will consider the nature of its own society and the available evidence of the age at which antisocial behaviour begins to manifest itself. Some societies will have qualities of indulgence toward the young and inexperienced, and will not wish them to be exposed to the criminal law system before all other avenues of response have been exhausted. Hence, some states have a policy of doli incapax (i.e. incapable of wrong) and exclude liability for all acts and omissions that would otherwise have been criminal up to a specified age.[6] Hence, no matter what the infant may have done, there cannot be a criminal prosecution. However, although no criminal liability is inferred, other aspects of law may be applied. For example, in Nordic countries, an offense by a person under 15 years of age is considered mostly a symptom of problems in child's development. This will cause the social authorities to take appropriate administrative measures to secure the development of the child. Such measures may range from counseling to placement at special care unit. Being non-judicial, the measures are not dependent on the severity of the offense committed but on the overall circumstances of the child.

The policy of treating minors as incapable of committing crimes does not necessarily reflect modern sensibilities. Thus, if the rationale of the excuse is that children below a certain age lack the capacity to form the mens rea of an offense, this may no longer be a sustainable argument. Indeed, given the different speeds at which people may develop both physically and intellectually, any form of explicit age limit may be arbitrary and irrational. Yet, the sense that children do not deserve to be exposed to criminal punishment in the same way as adults remains strong. Children have not had experience of life, nor do they have the same mental and intellectual capacities as adults. Hence, it might be considered unfair to treat young children in the same way as adults.

In Scotland, while the age of responsibility is eight years, a child below the age of twelve cannot be prosecuted.[7] In England and Wales and Northern Ireland the age of responsibility is ten years and in the Netherlands and Canada, the age of responsibility is twelve years. Sweden, Finland, and Norway all set the age at fifteen years. In the United States, the age varies between states but is normally not lower than seven years. As the treaty parties of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court could not agree on a minimum age for criminal responsibility, they chose to solve the question procedurally and excluded the jurisdiction of the Court for persons under eighteen years.

Some states refuse to set a fixed minimum age, but leave discretion to prosecutors to argue or the judges to rule on whether the child or adolescent ("juvenile") defendant understood that what was being done was wrong. If the defendant did not understand the difference between right and wrong, it may not be considered appropriate to treat such a person as culpable. Alternatively, the lack of real fault in the offender can be recognized by rulings that dispense mitigated criminal sentences or address more practical matters of parental responsibility by adjusting the rights of parents to unsupervised custody, or by separate criminal proceedings against the parents for breach of their duties as parents.

Ages of criminal responsibility by country

The following are the minimum ages at which children may be charged with a criminal offence.

Country Age Reference Notes
 Mexico 6-12
 United States 6-12 [8] Age determined by each state; the minimum age is 6 (North Carolina),[8][9] however, only 15 states have set minimum ages,[8] which range from 6 to 12 years. States without statutory minimum ages rely on common law, which means that 7[10] is the minimum age in most states; for federal crimes the age has been set at 11.
 India 7
 Myanmar 7
 Nigeria 7
 Pakistan 7
 Singapore 7
 Sudan 7
 Tanzania 7
 Indonesia 8
 Kenya 8
 Bangladesh 9
 Ethiopia 9
 Iran 9-15 [11] Age 9 for girls, 15 for boys
 Australia 10 [12] Age of criminal responsibility in Australia.
Rebuttable presumption of incapacity of committing crime: under 14.[12][13]
England Wales England and Wales (UK) 10 [14][15] See youth justice in England and Wales
   Nepal 10
 New Zealand 10-14 (depending on crime) 10 years for murder and manslaughter, 12 for crimes with a maximum imprisonment of fourteen years or more, 14 for all other offences.[16]
Northern Ireland (UK) 10 [17]
 South Africa 10 The Child Justice Act 75 of 2008 came into effect 1 April 2010. There is a rebuttable presumption that a child between the ages of 10 and 14 lacks criminal capacity.
  Switzerland 10
 Thailand 10
 Turkey 12
 Scotland (UK) 12 [18] However, the age of criminal responsibility is 8 years - if a compulsory intervention is considered necessary, a child aged between 8 and 12 years may be dealt with through the Children's Hearings system.
 Brazil 12 [19] [20] Majority age is 18; but from age 12 children's actions are subject to juvenile legal proceedings and sanctions.
 Canada 12 [21]
 Croatia 14 [22] 14 for all crimes under the general provisions of the Criminal Code; special provisions may apply for some crimes up to the age 21
 Hungary 12-14 (depending on crime) [23] 12 for premeditated homicide, voluntary manslaughter and bodily harm leading to death or resulting in life-threatening injuries; 14 for other crimes.[23]
 Ireland 12 [24]
 Israel 12
 Japan 12 [25]
 Morocco 12
 Netherlands 12
 South Korea 12
 Uganda 12
 Algeria 13
 France 13
 Austria 14
 China 14 Absolute minimum for acts that constitute the following crimes: homicide, wounding resulting in death, rape, robbery, arson, explosion, planting of toxic substances and trafficking in dangerous drugs. The minimum age for other crimes are 16. In Hong Kong, the minimum age is 10[26] and in Macau, 16
 Estonia 14
 Germany 14 [27] Minors between 14 and 18 years are sentenced by juvenile justice. An adult between 18 and 21 years may still be sentenced by juvenile justice if menatal matureness is not existing.
 Italy 14 Juvenile judiciary system for offenders aged between 14 and 18; separate juvenile jails . Full criminal responsibility from age 18.
 Romania 14
 Russia 14 [28] 16 by default, 14 years specifically for crimes as listed in Section 20 of the Criminal code, like murder, rape, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, motor vehicle theft, terror attack, stealing restricted substances like explosives or narcotics, aggravated anti-social behaviour, vandalism, false report of a terror attack
 Slovenia 14
 Spain 14 [29]
 Taiwan (China, Republic of) 14 Offenders aged 14 to 18 years qualify for reduction of sentence under section 18 of the Criminal Code. The death penalty and imprisonment without term cannot be applied to offenders aged 14 to 18 years.[30]
 Ukraine 14
 Vietnam 14
 Czech Republic 15 [31]
 Denmark 15
 Egypt 15
 Finland 15 [32]
 Iceland 15
 Norway 15 [33]
 Philippines 15 [34] A child fifteen years of age or under at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability. However, the child shall be subjected to an intervention program.

A child above fifteen years but below eighteen years of age shall likewise be exempt from criminal liability and be subjected to an intervention program, unless he/she has acted with discernment.

Discernment means the mental capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong and its consequences.[35]

 Sweden 15
 Belgium 16 [36]
 DR Congo 16 [36]
 Uzbekistan 15
 Portugal 16 Currently being studied the possibility of lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 14. From age 12 to 15 children are kept in juvenile correction centers.
 Argentina 18 Official age of criminal responsibility; from age 16, children's actions are subject to juvenile legal proceedings.
 Colombia 18 Official age of criminal responsibility; from age 12, children's actions are subject to juvenile legal proceedings.
International Criminal Court 18 [37]
 Peru 18 Official age of criminal responsibility; from age 12, children's actions are subject to juvenile legal proceedings.

Child imprisonment

Child imprisonment is a concept in criminal law where people are considered not old enough to be held responsible for their criminal acts. The main problem that most countries are having, is whether children should be punished as an adult for crimes committed as a juvenile; or, if special treatment is a better solution for the offender.

Juvenile Courts

In some countries, a juvenile court is a court of special jurisdiction charged with adjudicating cases involving crimes committed by those who have not yet reached a specific age. If convicted in a juvenile court, the offender is found "responsible" for their actions as opposed to "guilty" for a criminal offense. Sometimes, in some jurisdictions (such as the United States) a minor may be tried as an adult.



  • Rehabilitation (counseling and psychiatric treatment) is seen by some critics as a soft option that will make children believe that they are spending short periods of time in a holiday camp[dubious ]. In the US, more than half the boys who were put under counseling orders after offences rather than under detention ended up re-offending during the period they were undergoing counseling. It is better if whatever rehabilitation program is planned takes place in some sort of detention facility. They can still be separated from hardened adult criminals, but that does not mean they should not be detained for similar periods of time.


  • Child crime is different from adult crime in that the offenders are, in most legal systems, not deemed to be fully conscious moral individuals. As such, the best way to deal with them is through rehabilitation rather than punishment.
  • The only long term solution to juvenile crime is reform of the child. Children are more susceptible to reform and the rate of recalcitrance for child offenders under counseling in the US is significantly lower than that of adult offenders. Even if some end up re-offending, it does mean that just under half of those who had been given the chance to return to normal life took up that chance and did not re-offend. Putting them in a prison, and even worse with adult offenders is likely to increase the chance of recalcitrance because they will be in the same environment as other offenders who will be a negative influence on them.


Further reading

  • Maher, Gerry. "Age and Criminal Responsibility. 2005 Vol 2. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. 493 [4]
  • CRC Country Reports (1992–1996); Juvenile Justice and Juvenile Delinquency in Central and Eastern Europe, 1995; United Nations, Implementation of UN Mandates on Juvenile Justice in ESCAP, 1994; Geert Cappelaere, Children's Rights Centre, University of Gent, Belgium.
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