When a Child's Responsibility for its Actions Begins - Severity of Older Days - Modern Punishment of Children Capable of Criminal Offences

Criminal Capacity

Mo criminal liability can be attached to a child under seven years of age; a child under that age is considered incapable of committing a crime, and the presumption of law cannot be refuted. Between seven and fourteen the presumption in favour of innocence is still continued, but the presumption may be rebutted by evidence of knowledge that what he did Was wrong. This, however, must not be presumed from the mere commission of the act, but must be proved by the circumstances under which it was done.

Some Old-time Horrors

It is quite certain, too, that no modern jury would accept as evidence of a " mis-chievous discretion" circumstances which were sufficient to satisfy the judges and juries of ancient days that the juvenile accused had displayed craft and cunning, and we are not likely to hear again of a girl of thirteen being condemned and executed for killing her mistress, or of a boy of eight sentenced to death and hanged for burning some barns at Windsor, because it was made to appear that he had malice, revenge, craft, and cunning, forsooth; or of an infant under nine years who confessed to killing a child of the same age as himself, and was duly convicted.

But quite within recent times a little boy of eleven was charged and found guilty of manslaughter, his schoolmaster being called as one of the witnesses against him to show the amount of his intelligence.

Acquitted

In a case where coining implements were found in a house occupied by a man and his wife and a child ten years of age, the jury were directed to acquit the child of a felonious possession. And in another case where a little girl of ten was charged at Oxford with stealing coals, she having taken a few knobs from a large heap and put them into her basket, the jury found her "not guilty," and the foreman of the jury added We do not think that the prisoner had any guilty knowledge," notwithstanding that the facts were undisputed.

Over Fourteen

Children over the age of fourteen, but not of full age, are in very much the same position as persons who have arrived at their majority, the presumption in their case being that they possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for crimes, unless the contrary is proved. But an infant cannot be convicted of criminal offences under the Debtors' Act, nor can he be adjudicated .1 bankrupt.

And for certain offences, which it is needless to specify, boys under fourteen cannot be convicted of the commission or of the attempt, nor can any evidence of then capability be given against them.

Evidence Of Children

In criminal proceedings, whether under the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. 1904, or the more recent Children Act, 1908, if the child who is tendered as a witness does not, in the opinion of the Court, understand the nature of an oath, the child's evident may be received, though it is not given upon oath. But only if the child is possessed of sufficient intelligence to justify the reception of the evidence and understands the duty of speaking the truth.

No person, however, can be convicted on such unsworn evidence unless it is corroborated by evidence relating to the tacts and circumstances of the case.