The age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland should rise from 10 to 12, the Justice Minister has told the Assembly.
David Ford needs to secure the agreement of his Executive colleagues if the limit is to be changed.
While it is proposed the age is raised by two years, it could remain at 10 for serious crimes.
Mr Ford (below) said: “Personally, I agree with the overwhelming majority of those who responded to the public consultation that 10 is just too young to be dealt with by the weight of a criminal justice system.
“Medical research on brain development around understanding consequences and social policy research on the negative impact of criminalising young children tells us that we should seek non criminal justice interventions for the very small number of children in this age group who offend.”
Mr Ford acknowledged that the move does not have cross-party support but said he was committed to pressing ahead.
A wide-ranging independent review of the youth justice system recommended that the limit was increased.
Outlining progress in implementing the review, Mr Ford said he accepted that recommendation. Any change in the law would mean children aged 10 and 11 would no longer be held criminally |responsible for minor offences. Last year the number of children in that age group who passed through the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland was 24 — all were accused of minor crimes.
Six years ago, the Irish Republic raised its age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 with the exception of the most serious cases.
In Scotland the age is 12 with consideration being given to an increase. But in England and Wales the minimum age is 10.
“We should try to take a rational decision rather than one swayed by prejudice or the very rare event which occurs in other jurisdictions and which there has been nothing comparable here — as far as my officials can trace in Northern Ireland, ever,” said Mr Ford.
The review was a requirement of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement that saw security powers devolved to Stormont.
DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the Stormont Justice Committee, said more must be done to engage with young people before they break the law.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the plans to increase the age of criminal responsibility were foolish and branded |them “a waste of time”.