THE Scottish Government is under pressure after being urged to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least fourteen by a European human rights tsar.

Dunja Mijatović said the Ministerial proposal for raising the age level to twelve provides “insufficient guarantees” for a child-friendly system, adding that going further would conform to international standards.

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said:

“This intervention is both timely and welcome. It underscores the reality that if we set the new age of criminal responsibility in Scotland at twelve, we will reach the same level as the four most socially conservative countries in Europe and still find ourselves well behind the international curve.”

A child can be prosecuted at twelve years old, but the age of criminal responsibility is eight, one of the lowest in Europe. An adult could have a criminal record for something he did when he was in primary school.

The age in other countries ranges from ten in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to sixteen in Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal.

A Government Bill, introduced earlier this year, raises the age from eight to twelve, in a bid to ensure children are not stigmatised at an early age.

However, Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which is scrutinising the legislation, revealed some MSPs on the committee wanted the Government to go further:

“We struggled, however, to reach a shared view on whether 12 was a sufficiently high age to achieve the outcomes sought. Some Members felt that if a move to 12 years old could deliver significant improvements to children’s outcomes, then why should the same opportunities not be afforded to a young person of 14, 16 or even 18?”

A United Nations committee is also consulting on a draft proposal which encourage states to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility to fourteen.

Maree Todd, minister for children and young people, is now facing a dilemma after an intervention by Mijatović, who is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

Established in 1999, the Commissioner is an independent institution and Mijatović has a mandate to identify possible shortcomings in the law, as well as providing advice regarding human rights.

In her letter to Todd, Mijatović said she “warmly” welcomed the Government plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility, but she warned:

“At the same time, I am concerned that the current proposal to raise the minimum age from 8 to 12 still provides insufficient guarantees for a child-friendly and forward-looking system of dealing with children who come into conflict with the law.

“As many others who have commented on the Bill have already noted, increase the age of criminal responsibility to 12 would still leave Scotland behind the majority of Council of Europe member states, where the minimum age is often 14 or 15, and in some cases 16.”

She continued: “Similarly the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently revising its General Comment on children’s rights in juvenile justice, with a view to issuing a clear recommendation to states to increase the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14, whilst commending states that have higher ages, such as 15 or 16.

“On this basis, I call on you to consider ensuring that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is fixed at 14 at least, but preferably higher, in line with the standards set out above and the clear trend towards increasingly higher minimum ages.”

With the Bill at the second stage of the parliamentary process, Ministers could raise the age limit, but Todd was unenthusiastic about going further than twelve when she spoke in the debate last month:

“I accept that the European average age of criminal responsibility is 14. However, our comparative evidence clearly shows that the ‘age of criminal responsibility’ does not mean the same thing in different jurisdictions.”

Cole-Hamilton, who is putting forward amendments for both fourteen and sixteen, added:

“Whilst there may not be a parliamentary appetite to support my amendment lifting it to 16, I think that interventions from the international community such as this have helped to reframe the debate in support of my amendment to lift it to 14.

“The Scottish Government have stated that they are in listening mode and have not closed the door on further progress here. I look forward to working constructively with them through the next stages of the Bill and answer the clear challenge of International Institutions pressing us to be more ambitious for Scotland’s young people.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We will maintain our carefully considered, collaborative and responsible approach as we plan for future reform, responding to the needs of children, families and victims.

“We will consider the views of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child once a final version of the revised general comment has been received. We also welcome the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights’ interest, and will be inviting her to come to Scotland to see our approach to supporting children and young people first-hand, and find out why this has had such success in reducing youth offending.”