The age of criminal responsibility is the age which if a child falls beneath it they cannot be held to have committed a crime and cannot be held responsible for their actions.
Before the 13th Century and the medieval times of England, it was a generally held custom that children under the age of 12 could not be convicted of crimes. The reasoning behind this is archaic. From 12 years old, a person was expected to be in frankpledge. This was a sharing of joint responsibility towards your relatives or to a Lord you had given your oath of service.
Being in frankpledge meant that if you committed wrongful actions and were summoned for judgment before your local hundred-court, but did not turn up, your relatives and lord could be fined on your behalf. By necessity this meant a person of 12 years of age had to be responsible for their actions.
In the 1300s, a child under 12 could be convicted of crimes if a judge held that they were able to tell right from wrong. This was a discretionary test but this level of mental capacity could be indicated by trying to evade the authorities, thus demonstrating your guilt.
The historical sources are unclear during the above centuries as to whether there was a lower age limit beneath which a child could definitely not be convicted. In the 17th Century, a lower age limit of 7 was agreed upon from the compilation of principles from archaic case law. Also, the upper limit was changed to 14, rather than 12. With any potentially criminal actions of a child under 14, it had to proven that they knew right from wrong.
This, broadly, remained the case until the significant legislation of the Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 which implemented an age of criminal responsibility of 8 years old. This was raised to 10 by the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 and 10 remains the age of criminal responsibility in England today. An interesting modern case study and discussion on this issue can be found on this blog: EastLaw.
This age remains one of the lowest in the world, with countries such as Iran, Singapore, Sudan and Pakistan coming in below us by setting the age of criminal responsibility at 7. On the other end of the scale, many countries set the age between 12 and 14 and Sweden and Belgium at 15 and 16 respectively. It has been argued in numerous sources that we are out of step with modern opinion on this issue.
Indeed, the Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 recommends at the very least, a minimum age of 12. It is a point for which the Committee has consistently criticised England over the years.
A private members Bill is currently making its way through Parliament regarding the age of criminal responsibility, it had its first reading in January 2013. The Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill 2013 seeks to change the minimum age to 12. It is yet to be seen whether this will succeed, and become law, but it is an important, and interesting, one to keep an eye on.