Young Minds, Old Legal Problems: Can Neuroscience fill the Void?

Hannah Wishart


From 10 years of age the criminal law requires a person demonstrate a reasonable degree of normative competence. But what if a young person aged between 10-14 does not possess such mental capacities, cannot do anything about it, and is not capable of holding responsibility? Should the criminal law make allowances for him in these circumstances? I will argue that it should, because neuroscientific studies reveal young adolescents to be incapable of exercising normative competence. For evidence suggests that they are only capable of performing basic mental functions, for instance, self-directed reasoning and appreciating short-term consequences of their actions. In agreement is Lord Dholakia, the principal drafter of the Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill (2015) since the law’s idea of what a 10-year-old is mentally capable of is at odds with the degree of maturational development obtained. As a consequence Lord Dholakia proposes that there be an increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years. Though the underlying premise to increase the threshold age is sound, numerous objections will be made, for it will be defended this proposition rests on insufficient neuroscientific evidence.

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