In Northern Ireland the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age. Dr Nicola Carr and Dr Siobhán McAlister tell VIEWdigital that reform in this area can no longer wait

By Dr Nicola Carr and Dr Siobhán McAlister

It is 10 years since a landmark review of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland made a series of recommendations amongst which was that the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) should be raised with immediate effect.

In Northern Ireland the MACR is 10 years, and alongside England and Wales, it is the lowest in Europe, where the average MACR is 14 years. Since the review was published there have been several significant changes in the youth justice system, including the fact that overall, the numbers of young people entering the system has declined, but several persistent issues remain. Children with care experience are over-represented within the justice system, and particularly in the population of children who are detained in custody, and delay in processing children’s cases continues to be a significant issue.

When the Youth Justice Review was published the government accepted most of the report’s 31 recommendations.

In the years following the review the progress of the implementation of the recommendations was monitored and reported on by the Department of Justice. The Criminal Justice Inspectorate also tracked the progress of implementation and in 2015, four years after the review was published, it assessed that 59 per cent of the recommendations had been progressed.

Since that time, however, there has been no further reporting on the progress of implementation.

In the intervening period, including during the time in which the Assembly was suspended, there have been several mooted significant policy developments in youth justice, but a sense in which these were moving away from the ground that had been charted by the review.

Against this background, four non-governmental organisations working with and advocating on behalf of children and young people (Include Youth, NIACRO, Children’s Law Centre and VOYPIC) commissioned us to trace the developments towards implementation of the Youth Justice Review’s recommendations with a specific focus from 2015 onwards.

Our report which was launched at Stormont on 23rd November is based on interviews with a broad range of key stakeholders and policy and document analysis.

It reports that there are clear gaps in the evidence base on which policy is being formulated in youth justice, a point reinforced in recent analyses by the Northern Ireland Audit Office on the operation of the system.

Furthermore key elements of the recommendations remain unimplemented, the most significant of which is raising the MACR. It is evident that much of the envisaged reforms articulated in the review, such as meaningful diversion from the criminal justice system and minimising the harmful effects of system contact, rest on the implementation of this key recommendation.

Speaking at the launch of the report the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, reiterated her support for raising the MACR, but she also noted this would not be achieved within this mandate due to the lack of cross-party support.

Ironically, in the decade since the review reported, a whole cohort of children will now have reached the age of criminal responsibility. Reform in this area can no longer wait.

• Report authors Dr Nicola Carr and Dr Siobhán McAlister – Tracing the Review. Developments in Youth Justice in Northern Ireland 2011-2021.

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