Children in Ireland are among the most vulnerable members of society. Irish law protects children until they are considered to be able to interact in society as adults. For this reason, children are treated differently from adults by the criminal justice system in Ireland. The law which deals with children found in breach of the criminal law is contained in the Children Act, 2001 which was amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2006. The 2001 legislation is based on the philosophy that children in conflict with the law should only be detained (custody) by the state as a last resort. There are many community based measures which must be explored before detention can be considered. There are three Departments of the Government who have the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the Children Act 2001, which comprises all children rights and policy. These are the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; the Department of Education and Science; the Department of Health and Children.

Definition of a child in criminal law

The word child is now defined by Section 3 of the 2001 Children Act to mean a person under the age of 18 years. The Children Act 2001 does not distinguish between a child and a young person. Any provisions in earlier Acts distinguishing different classes of children (for example, young persons, minors, child) no longer exist.

Age of criminal responsibility

The age of criminal responsibility is covered by Section 52 of the Children Act 2001 as amended by Section 129 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006. This came into effect in October 2006, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 7 years of age to 12 years of age. This means that children who have not reached the age of 12 years cannot be charged with an offence. There is an exception, however, for children aged 10 or 11 who can be charged with murder, manslaughter, rape or aggravated sexual assault. In addition, where a child under 14 years of age is charged with an offence, no further proceedings can be taken without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions

Although the 2001 Act in general prohibits children under 12 years of age from being charged and convicted of a criminal offence, they do not enjoy total immunity from action being taken against them. Section 53 of the Act as amended by Section 130 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 places an onus on the Gardai to take a child under 12 years of age to his/her parents or guardian., where they have reasonable grounds for believing that the child has committed an offence with which the child cannot be charged due to the child’s age. Where this is not possible the Gardai will arrange for the child to be taken into the custody of the Health Service Executive (HSE) for the area in which the child normally resides. It is possible that children under 12 years of age who commit criminal offences will be dealt with by the HSE and not the criminal justice system.

Detention of a child

Under Section 142 of the Children Act 2001, a court may impose a period of detention on a child. Where the child is under 16 years of age the child is detained in a children detention school. Children aged 16 and 17 are detained in children detention centres. However, the court can only impose a detention order where it is satisfied that it is the only suitable way to deal with the child and, for a child under 16 years of age, a place in a children detention school is available.

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