Alex Hilton: Courts must set child guidelines

As the media frenzy around the James Bulger killer Jon Venables' recall to prison finally subsides, an intervention from the Children's Commissioner Dr Maggie Atkinson has reignited the affair.

Alex Hilton: Courts must set child guidelines

When Dr Atkinson told The Times that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised from age 10 to 12, she was repeating a proposal in wide currency in the sector that rarely gets media coverage. But this month things are different and James Bulger's mother Denise Fergus has called for Atkinson's sacking and earned the Commissioner a lazy rebuke from Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

In a country where we imprison 3,000 children at any given time, someone has to be an advocate for their rights, but it is hard not to sympathise with Ms Fergus.

Yet, maybe they are both wrong. If Bulger's killers had been just one year younger at the time of the attack, they would have escaped a trial and Ms Fergus would perhaps be campaigning against the position she is currently defending. Likewise, Dr Atkinson is seeking to move that arbitrary line to another similar age, which would have left Bulger's killers without criminal sanction.

Justice is not like voting, or driving a car, or other rules that have obscurely chosen age barriers. Unlike these broad privileges that can be right for some people and wrong for others, justice has to be just for everyone.

The age of consent has that flexibility. Everyone who has sex with a 13-year-old is likely to face prosecution if caught but two 15-year-olds experimenting are unlikely to face the same sanction.

Similarly, in medicine, a child will usually have their treatment determined by their parents. But if the child shows understanding of what is wrong with them and the consequences of the different treatment options, doctors may overrule the parents according to the child's wishes, because medicine, like justice, has to be right for each individual.

Courts should assess a child's responsibility for their actions before subjecting them to trial. An approach like this might satisfy both the victims of child criminals and those advocating for children's rights.

- Alex Hilton is a Labour parliamentary candidate and founder of political blogs Labourhome and Recess Monkey.

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