An angry row has broken out over controversial plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland to 12 years old.
The proposals were outlined yesterday as a major report on youth justice was presented to the Assembly.
However, MLAs clashed over the recommendation to increase the age from 10, with the DUP branding the rise as “a hug a hoodie” approach.
And last night the solicitor who defended one of Britain’s most notorious child killers warned that raising the age of responsibility could lead to “anarchy”.
Laurence Lee, who represented James Bulger killer Jon Venables, said it would send out “an awful message”.
“If you said to all 10-year-olds, who are a lot brighter now than they were, that the age of responsibility has gone up to 12, I think there would be absolute anarchy,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Currently a child under 10 is considered below the age of responsibility and cannot be prosecuted for an offence.
However, it is out of line with both Scotland and the Republic, where the age is 12. In Europe the average is 14.
Plans to raise the age here were first reported by this newspaper last December, when we revealed that dozens of children — including suspects in arson, assault and theft cases — had escaped punishment because they were too young to be prosecuted.
The review into the youth justice system was set up under the 2010 Hillsborough Agreement on power-sharing.
The team has been working on its report since last November.
Its findings recommend the age of responsibility should rise to12, and eventually to 14, in line with European averages.
Addressing the Assembly yesterday, Justice Minister David Ford said he would prefer to “reform a hoodie” rather than hug one.
DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the Stormont justice committee, said he wanted the age lowered not increased.
However, Green MLA Steven Agnew — who supports a change in the age — accused the DUP of adopting a “hang a hoodie” policy.