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‘Raise the age’: LCA addresses bleak findings on Australia’s criminal responsibility laws

The Law Council of Australia has responded to international findings, which highlighted how certain areas of Australia’s human rights efforts, particularly the minimum age of criminal responsibility, leave much to be desired.

user iconEmma Musgrave 25 January 2021 Politics
LCA president Dr Jacoba Brasch QC
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At the United Nations Universal Periodic Review last week, several Australian laws were again identified as being significant human rights concerns, with the nation receiving over 250 recommendations from over 120 countries to address, and immediately update, its laws so that they are in line with international expectations around human rights.

One of the major issues identified stemmed from the minimum age of criminal responsibility, in which 31 countries made a recommendation for Australia to raise the age. 

LCA president Dr Jacoba Brasch QC suggested the calls were unsurprising, with the peak legal body long calling for the minimum age of criminal responsibility be raised from 10 to 14 years.


“[The] call by 31 countries meeting at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review that Australia raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, is a stark reminder that Australia is falling behind the rest of the world in dealing with juvenile offenders,” Dr Brasch said.

“According to 2019 figures supplied by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 600 children under the age of 14 across the country are in our prisons every year, some as young as 10 years old. More than half have not even been sentenced yet – but are locked up pending trial.

“Indigenous children are disproportionately affected: 835 per 100,000 Indigenous children aged 10-14 were in youth justice supervision on an average day in 2017-2018, compared to 28 per 100,000 non-Indigenous children.

“These are some of the most vulnerable children in society – who have frequently experienced issues such as parental incarceration, homelessness, neglect and poor health. It is unconscionable that in 2021 Australia, while a child under 13 years cannot sign up for a Facebook account; cannot board a plane unsupervised if under 12 but children as young as 10, can be found to be criminally responsible, charged with a crime and kept in detention.”

Dr Brasch clarified that the LCA is not discounting legitimate concerns held among some parts of the community about community safety and juvenile crime, “however, children aged 10-14 are statistically very unlikely to commit serious crimes such as homicide”.

“However, evidence strongly suggests that having a low minimum age of criminal responsibility of 10 years old does not work. It does not make our communities safer, because it fails to prevent reoffending or to rehabilitate children. It does not make the children themselves safer,” he added.

“Instead, it is likely to entrench criminality and creates cycles of inter-generational disadvantage that heighten reoffending rates.”

Ultimately, Dr Brasch said raising the age to 14 would remove the need for courts to consider the confusing and complex common law doctrine of doli incapax, which is leading to inconsistencies in different jurisdictions and it is difficult to use in a courtroom”.

“Instead of incarceration, the Law Council believes that there is a need for alternative, health and welfare-based responses, to introduce policies and programs which maximise the chances of rehabilitating the child, addressing their underlying needs, and upholding community safety in both the immediate and longer-term,” he concluded.