We pride ourselves on rights but we are failing children

28 January 2019

In this article which originally appeared in the Times, Commissioner Bruce Adamson writes on how Scotland's proposed new age of criminal responsibility at 12 falls below international human rights standards.

Thirty years ago we adopted the United Nations Convention of the Child which sought to create legal basis for all children to grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding. We have made significant progress on children’s human rights since then, but on some issues Scotland is failing children and falling far behind international standards.

The age at which we criminalise children for their behaviour – shockingly at eight - is one of the lowest in the world, and the current proposals by the Scottish Government to raise it to 12 leaves us well below the European standard of 14. This is not going unnoticed.

In an extraordinary intervention, the European Commissioner for Human Rights last month wrote to the Minister for Children and Young People and Members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have raised concerns directly with Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament.

Over a decade ago the UN conducted a major global study and determined that a welfare-based approach was the best way to address harmful behaviour by children, and that keeping children out of criminal justice systems led to better results, keeping everyone safer, and ensuring that children could assume a constructive role in society.

They determined that prosecuting children under 12 was incompatible with international law and highlighted the benefit of an age set at 14 or 16. In the intervening decade research and understanding of child and adolescent development have reinforced this point and the in the next few months the UN will clarify its position – in line with the Council of Europe - that 14 is the absolute minimum age for the worst performing countries, and that progressive countries should go higher.

We are rightly proud of our Children’s Hearing System which reflects an understanding that justice systems need to treat children differently to adults, but it has made Scotland complacent about the damaging effects of criminalisation. Research from Edinburgh University shows that criminalisation of children has a counterproductive effect, leading to an increase in harmful behaviour.

I believe Scots law should always exceed the minimum acceptable international standard, and that the Scottish Parliament – as a human rights guarantor – should challenge the government to exceed them. If we ignore the evidence and reject the international standards being clearly articulated by the United Nations and the Council of Europe, we will continue to undermine the dignity and worth of children. Scotland says it wants to show human rights leadership, now is the time to put that into action.