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Criminal Defence Articles

Can you go to jail for something you did as a child?

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Perhaps your child is in the criminal justice system or maybe you are sitting wondering whether you might one day receive a call from the police regarding a crime that you committed as a juvenile. Whatever the case may be, this article aims to answer your questions regarding the way that the police and courts in England and Wales treat juvenile offenders. The questions we will answer in this article are: What is the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales? What happens if a child commits a crime? Are the names of children who are accused of crimes published? And finally, how long after committing an offence can you be charged?

What is the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales?

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old. This means that children under that age cannot be arrested or charged with a crime. If a person is 10 years old or older, they cannot be arrested or charged in relation to an offence that they committed when they were under the age of 10.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is the youngest in Europe and experts have suggested that it should be raised to12 to avoid needlessly criminalising children before they have even started secondary school.

What happens if a child commits a crime?

Children under the age of 10

In England and Wales, if a child under the age of 10 commits a crime, they cannot be arrested or charged. That said, they can be given a:

  • Local child curfew – this bans the child from being in a public place between 9pm to 6am. It can last for up to 90 days.
  • Child safety order – this is where the child is placed under the supervision of the local youth offending team. This usually lasts for up to three months but can be extended up to 12 months.

If a child breaks the law regularly and their parents or carers are unable to prevent them from breaking the law, the local authority may start court proceedings to place the child in state care (in a foster home). If you are a parent in this position, you should seek advice from a solicitor specialising in child law.

Children between the ages of 10 and 17

Children between the ages of 10 and 17 can be arrested and taken to the police station. An appropriate adult must be present before they are interviewed. An appropriate adult could be a parent or guardian, social worker or other professional. If a child has to be detained overnight by police, rather than being kept in a cell, they should be transferred to secure local authority accommodation. However, secure local authority accommodation for children is often not available, which can lead to children being detained in police cells over night, in spite of the fact that this is contrary to government guidance.

This is troubling because children in police custody are far more likely than your average child to be especially vulnerable. Up to 32% of children in police custody have learning difficulties, up to 90%  experience communication difficulties, and 15% are autistic, and 18% have suffered a head injury with loss of consciousness for more than 20 minutes. These figures are far higher than the presence of these vulnerability factors in children in the general population.

If a child is charged, their case will be heard in the youth court, which is a type of Magistrates’ Court that deals with young people.

Cases at the youth court are either presided over by three magistrates or by single district judge. Relatives of the child and members of the press are allowed to observe proceedings. If victims wish to watch proceedings, they have to make a request to the court. Parents have to attend, unless the child is over the age of 16. Proceedings in the youth court tend to be less formal than in the adult courts. For example, the defendant is referred to by their first name.

More serious cases are usually transferred to the Crown Court. Youth cases that must be transferred to the Crown Court include:

Often, when a youth case is held in the Crown Court, barristers will remove their wigs to appear less formal and intimidating.

Identity of children charged with criminal offences

The identity of children under the age of 18 who are charged with criminal offences cannot be disclosed outside of the court. For example, journalists are not allowed to report their name, address, school, or publish photographs that could identify them.

The child will remain anonymous until the court has given judgment. However, once proceedings have concluded, anonymity can be challenged, and if a challenge is successful then the press may be permitted to publish the child’s details.

Children who are convicted of serious crimes may also be able to change their identity upon release from prison to enable them to have a new start. A high profile example of this was the killers of Jamie Bulger – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – who murdered the toddler when they were 10 years old. Upon release from prison, they were both given new identities and a court order for life long anonymity was granted.

Can a child be sent to prison?

Children under 10 cannot be arrested or charged and consequently cannot be sent to prison. Young people above the age of 10 but under the age of 18, if convicted and given a custodial sentence, will be sent to secure centres reserved for young people.


Like adult offenders, young people can be remanded in custody awaiting trial rather than being released on bail. However, when considering a child’s bail application, the court is duty bound to take into account the child’s welfare. This makes it more likely that a child will be granted bail compared to an adult.

Custodial sentence

When sentencing young people, the Sentencing Council highlights that the court must have regard to:

  • The principle aim of the youth justice system, which is to prevent young people from offending; and
  • The welfare of the child.

Unlike the sentencing of adults, the court must tailor the sentence to the young person, rather than base it solely on the offence. The sentence should focus on rehabilitation. The court should also consider the likely impacts – both positive and negative – upon the child.

A custodial sentence should only be given to a child as a last resort. The court should take into account the fact that children are more impulsive than adults, that they lack experience of the world, and may be more prone to be impacted upon by negative influences. When deciding the sentence, the court must consider:

  • The need to avoid alienating the child from society
  • Their educational needs
  • The fact that the impact of a punishment is likely to be felt more heavily by a child than an adult
  • The child’s welfare needs including their mental health, any traumatic life experiences they may have had, and any special educational needs

How long after committing an offence can you be charged?

If you are worried that minor offences that you committed as a child, for which you were never arrested or charged at the time, might catch up with you, the good news is that they probably won’t.

If you were under 10 at the time of the offence then you cannot be charged subsequently as you were below the age of criminal responsibility. If you were between 10 and 17 at the time of committing the offence, then it would depend on the nature of the offence.

Summary only offences – less serious offences, which must be heard in the Magistrates’ Court, (for example, criminal damage under £5000 or shoplifting), must be laid within six months of the offence. There is no time limit for laying charges for either way or indictable only offences such as sexual assault or rape, but the CPS would have to be satisfied that it was in the public interest to bring a charge after a significant amount of time had passed, especially if you were under 18 at the time of the offence.

Where to get further help

If you are the parent or guardian of a child who has been arrested or charged in connection with a crime, call Stuart Miller Solicitors today. We will provide your child with top quality legal representation to enable them to get the best possible outcome in their case. Where the evidence in the case is weak, our criminal defence solicitors are skilled in communicating with the CPS to have the case dropped before court. Arranging a consultation is easy – simple get in touch in whatever way is most convenient and we will arrange a time that works for you.


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