Organisations Join in Call to ‘Stop Criminalising Our Children’

28 November 2022

Experts and children address event in support of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 16

Raising the age would remove a considerable number of children from the justice system

A Department of Justice NI consultation is due to close on 23 December 2022

The current age of criminal responsibility in NI is ten, one of the lowest in Europe and the developed world

Queen’s University Belfast, Centre for Children’s Rights, the Children’s Law Centre, Include Youth, NIACRO and Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) have jointly called on support for raising the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland to 16, with no exceptions.

The call came at an expert led event titled ‘Stop Criminalising Our Children’ hosted today (Monday 28 November) at Queen’s University, where attendees heard from a range of experts, including children themselves.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been quite clear that developed democratic societies should be aiming high and raising the age of criminal responsibility to 16 – Fergal McFerran, Children’s Law Centre

The event was organised in response to the Department of Justice NI’s consultation on whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised in Northern Ireland. The five organisations believe this is the right opportunity to lead the way and raise the age to 16, with no exceptions. This would bring Northern Ireland in line with best practice, protect vulnerable children who are being failed, and provide better outcomes for society.

Joint Briefing – 10 Reasons Why 10 Is Too Young

Speaking about Northern Ireland being well behind international standards, Fergal McFerran, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the Children’s Law Centre said:

“We’re failing our children and young people in Northern Ireland by criminalising them at such an early age. We’re also hugely out of step with international children’s rights obligations. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been quite clear that developed democratic societies should be aiming high and raising the age of criminal responsibility to 16. Indeed, as far back as 2008, the then Chair of the Committee made that very point at the Children’s Law Centre annual lecture.”

Highlighting the impact criminalising children has on their lives, Dr Paula Rodgers, Policy Coordinator from Include Youth added:

“As a rights based charity for children and young people, Include Youth are concerned about the impact of criminalising children from aged ten. As well as increasing their chances of moving further in to the justice system, it can alienate them from society, create barriers to education, future employment and have huge implications on their mental health.

“Research has proven time and time again that criminalising children does not work. A low age of criminal responsibility that seeks a criminal justice solution to welfare issues, poverty, adverse childhood experiences and trauma simply accelerates already vulnerable children into the system. A needs based approach that focuses on trauma and rehabilitation can not only help the child or young person, but the whole community.”

Calling for better preventative strategies to divert young people from the criminal justice system, Fiona Greene, Chief Executive of NIACRO, said: 

“NIACRO fully supports raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 16. Raising the age would make a significant impact in removing the numbers of children entering the criminal justice system and ensure they are supported, and not punished, and behaviour is addressed. It would also support the expansion of evidence based Early Intervention services and programmes and demonstrate a commitment to trauma informed practice. 

“We need to see movement on this crucial issue now, our children deserve to see movement.”

Research has proven time and time again that criminalising children does not work” – Dr Paula Rodgers, Include Youth

With one in three children detained in the Juvenile Justice Centre having experience of care, Alicia Toal, Chief Executive of VOYPIC said:

“Research tells us that children in the youth justice system come from our most deprived and disadvantaged communities. Those with speech and language difficulties, poor mental health, or living in care, are more likely to be over-represented among this group of children.

“Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is one clear step we can take to redress this discriminatory approach, stop the criminalisation of children in care, and build a safer and fairer community for everyone.”

Joint Briefing – 10 Reasons Why Ten Is Too Young

Dr Siobhan McAlister, from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast said:

“The Centre for Children’s Rights at Queen’s welcome this public consultation on raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland. It is long overdue. We retain one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe. The event hosted at Queen’s provides an opportunity to influence this public consultation by presenting some of the evidence demonstrating why raising the age of criminal responsibility is the right and necessary thing to do.”

“I was 13 the first time I had contact with the police and at the time I was in kinship care… No one asked me what was going on or why I did what I did” – ‘Chris’, now aged 19

Young people with experience of the criminal justice system have added their voice to the calls

‘Chris’, now aged 19 said:

“I was 13 the first time I had dealings with the police and at the time I was in kinship care. I was told I was in a lot of trouble, but no one asked me what was going on or why I did what I did.

“This was the start of my mental health getting bad. I was in consistent fear of being stopped by the police and everyone where I’m from thinking I was a bad kid.

“At that age you do stupid things you don’t realise the impact. If someone who was nice and could understand and help kids learn what would happen if they did these things or find out why they did do them and help them so they don’t do it again.”

‘Mark’, now 18, had a similar experience:

“I felt peer pressured, I didn’t know right from wrong at that young age.

“I was doubting myself and I don’t think any 13 year old should feel threatened because they are not educated on policing and law and order.”

“I didn’t know right from wrong… I was doubting myself and I don’t think any 13 year old should feel threatened because they are not educated on policing and law and order” – ‘Mark’, now aged 18

Key Statistics

According to government figures, there were 456 individual children aged 10-15 years old referred to the Youth Justice Agency Services in 2021/2022.

Of the 106 individual children in custody in 2021/2022, 33 were subject to a Care Order and 3 were Voluntary Accommodated.

There were 1,057 10-15 year old children recorded as having received prosecutions at court and out of court disposals in 2021.

The cost of holding a young person in custody during 2020-21 was £190,206 (expressed as the cost per place including corporate overheads) or £829,988 when expressed as the cost per occupant. Government figures from the Department of Justice, reveal that the one year proven re-offending rate of young people for custody release was 16 out of 20 young people. Non-custodial disposal with supervision was 45.6% | Non-custodial disposal without supervision was 38.6% | Diversionary disposal was 21.5%

Joint Briefing – 10 Reasons Why 10 Is Too Young

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Call for Evidence: NI Stakeholder Report

05 September 2022

The Children’s Law Centre has been leading the NGO sector in Northern Ireland in contributing to the examination of the UK Government by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Having submitted a Stakeholder Report in December 2020 which influenced the List of Issues Prior to Reporting, the UK Government has since submitted a response by way of its State Party Report.

Image saying: "Read the previous report... Use the template to submit a response to CLC by Friday 30th September 2022"
Click on the image to get a copy of the previous stakeholder report

We now have the opportunity to submit a further report to the Committee, identifying key issues to be discussed during the UK Government’s examination in May 2023, taking account of any significant and relevant changes since December 2020.

CLC has asked Dr Deena Haydon to prepare an updated Stakeholder Report for submission in December 2022. We are keen to ensure that this is an accurate overview of key issues concerning implementation of the UNCRC in this jurisdiction.

This is an important mechanism to raise gaps and concerns around the implementation of international children’s rights standards. It is an opportunity to identify the current challenges facing our children and young people and how the failure to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child impacts them. It is important we gain your expert input.

Image that reads: "Call for evidence... Use the template to submit a response to CLC by Friday 30 September 2022
Click on the image to download a copy of the template for responses

If you wish to contribute to the report, please download and use the template we have provided and return it by no later than 5pm on Friday 30th September. Please ensure you have read the previous report, as well as the State Party Report before submitting further evidence.

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New Assembly can ‘Close the Gap’ in Children’s Rights

24 May 2022

The Children’s Law Centre has launched a new document outlining some key priorities for the new Assembly to protect children and young people in this jurisdiction. The document, titled ‘Close the Gap’, highlights the positive actions that can be taken by MLAs in a functioning devolved Assembly to close the gap in children’s rights.

Read ‘Close the Gap’

Key priorities range from incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law, through a range of youth justice issues, improvements to special education needs and disabilities (SEND) provision, fixing children’s mental health services, supporting children with complex needs, and addressing the gap in prevalence data to assess the unmet needs of children and young people.

Image displaying key priority 'Incorporate the UNCRC into domestic law'

Fergal McFerran, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at CLC said: “In recent years, CLC experts have consistently highlighted the gap in children’s rights in this jurisdiction and the impact this has had on children here. Whether it’s through the NGO stakeholder report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, or the ‘Tracing the Review’ report, the theme is absolutely clear, children and young people in this jurisdiction are being left behind.

“However, our experience tells us that devolution has the potential to transform lives and deliver real change. We believe the new Assembly mandate provides an opportunity to do just that.

“We hope this document clearly lays out some key steps that a new functioning Assembly can take to close the gap in children’s rights. It has been developed through our legal and policy expertise and grounded in our frontline experience working on behalf of children and young people, particularly those most vulnerable and marginalised.

“We look forward to engaging constructively with decision makers over the course of the coming mandate to promote, extend and defend the rights of children and young people.”

Read ‘Close the Gap’

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Restraint and Seclusion Recommendations Welcome, Implementation Essential

25 April 2022

The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) has welcomed a report by the Department of Education reviewing the use of restrictive practices in education settings. The report makes six recommendations, including repeal of Article 4 (1)(c) of the Education (NI) Order 1998 and outlines the need for statutory guidance.

Legal experts at CLC also welcomed the recognition of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) within the report, as well as the collaborative work undertaken to consult with stakeholders. A key issue at this stage is the extent of the legislative reform required to ensure compliance with human rights standards within education settings.

Special education needs and disability expert, Rachel Hogan, said: “I would like to pay tribute to the small group of committed individuals who have consistently built pressure to address this issue. That includes, most notably, children, young people and the parents and carers of the children and young people affected. This is what happens when the people affected have their voice heard by decision makers and should be an important lesson on how good, evidence-based, decisions can be made.

“There can be no doubt that the existing framework and guidance has led to instances where the human rights of vulnerable children have been seriously violated. The grievous impact this has had on the children affected, as well as their parents and carers, has now been brought into the public domain and acknowledged.

“There has been a notable lack of consistency in approach between education and health and social care settings and this must be fully addressed. Children should have equal protection from the unlawful and disproportionate use of restrictive practices regardless of the setting they find themselves in.

“The recommendations in the report reflect the direction of travel we need to take to protect children in education settings. This includes the urgent need for legislative reform, clear statutory guidance and monitoring practices. CLC is pleased to have had the opportunity to feed in to the report through the Department of Education’s reference group and the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People’s advisory group.

“Effective and timely implementation of the recommendations is now key. The young people affected, and the parents and carers who have fought for change, all deserve to see progress. We cannot continue to allow children’s rights to be breached in this way. The current framework has fallen well short of international human rights standards and this is the first step towards addressing that.

“CLC looks forward to ongoing engagement on the implementation of positive change to realise and protect the legal rights of children and young people in education settings.”

Read a report on the recommendations by

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Treatment of Disabled Children and Adults Should Bring ‘Shame’

  • Systemic failings worsened by the impact of COVID-19
  • Daily life still impossible for many as we emerge from the pandemic

07 April 2022

The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) and the National Autistic Society NI have warned that disabled children and adults are being discriminated against because of the lack of adequate service provision to meet their needs. The charities, who advocate for people with complex and high support needs, witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people, particularly children, who have lost access to vital services in the past number of years.

However, both charities insist the systemic failings have been there for a long time, and only worsened by the response to the pandemic. While others in society return to everyday life, many disabled children and adults have been ignored and left isolated, living restricted lives and having their freedoms and autonomy severely curtailed.

Speaking ahead of a special hustings debate titled ‘Forgotten Voices’, the charities called for urgent and meaningful action to address the failings.

CLC Mental Health Solicitor, Eamonn McNally, said: “We should be horrified and ashamed at the treatment of disabled children with complex needs. What some young people, as well as their parents and carers, are having to go through is nothing short of a disgrace in a modern society. How can they expect to live their lives without access to the services that make that possible?

“We know from recent reports that the health and well-being of disabled people has not improved as restrictions have lifted, and that their access to health services continues to remain limited. This is reflected in our everyday casework at CLC, which has grown in both size and complexity.

“Respite services have been crippled for many years and the impact of the pandemic has exposed the inequalities for disabled children and adults. But we can’t hide behind the pandemic or make excuses, these failings have long been apparent. Disabled children have a wide range of legal rights and those rights include access to services that allow them to live a full and dignified life, as well as services to support carers by providing them with the help they need to maintain care for their loved ones within the family home.

“The failure to provide adequate services to children with complex needs and their families breaches a range of fundamental human rights.”

Shirelle Stewart, Director of National Autistic Society NI, added: “As we emerge from the pandemic, much of society is feeling the benefits of a return to normal life. Yet this isn’t the case for many disabled adults and children with complex care needs, including many autistic people. Many are still facing a daily struggle to cope, as services remain wholly inadequate in providing for their needs. In some cases, already stretched services have disappeared completely.

“When are we going to start listening to the people who have had to suffer most during the pandemic and start giving them their lives back? We need to listen to the voices of people with complex needs, their families and carers. Their concerns need to be acted upon by the government and public authorities, recognising their protected status under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. We need to see a significant drive towards joined up, properly planned and funded cross-departmental work, including the collection of disaggregated data to assess the level of unmet need.

“Disability discrimination in education settings, including informal exclusion, part-time schooling or no schooling, lack of required therapeutic input, failure to provide school transport to disabled children with complex needs and unauthorised restrictive practices must end. “Anything less than swift and targeted action by government departments and public authorities to address these unmitigated inequalities will be an abject failure of human rights compliance.”

Case Story

Jillian Black is mum to Peter who is nearly twenty. Peter is autistic and has a severe learning disability, ADHD and uncontrollable epilepsy, Peter can often become distressed because of his profound disability, which can result in harm to himself, others or property. When Peter was in children’s services he accessed four overnights a month. Although this was not a lot, it provided a welcome break to providing the 24/7 care that Peter needs.

When Peter turned 18 he entered adult services and the family have never been told what their assessed respite is. Since becoming an adult, he has only had four nights respite, two in December 2020 and two in spring 2021. The respite unit he was using had to be closed to house an adult on an emergency placement.

Peter’s mum, Jillian, said:

“You just feel absolute desperation when you are told that you will have no respite. We don’t begrudge our caring role but providing care on a 24/7 basis with no breaks really takes its toll. There is only me and his dad, as his sister is at university, so we are exhausted. No one would expect anyone to work all that time with no breaks.

“Peter is at the age where he needs to become less dependent on his mum and dad and allow others to help, but the lack of respite is not allowing this transition to happen. We don’t know what will happen in the future.”

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