Crime and punishment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 November, 1999, 12:00am

Raising the minimum age at which children can be held legally liable for crimes is unlikely to prove popular in law-abiding Hong Kong.

Previous attempts to do so have foundered on opposition from legislators who feared this would make it easier for children to be coerced into committing crimes. Surveys have also shown a majority oppose any change.

Nonetheless, the Law Reform Commission is right to grasp this nettle with its impending recommendation that the minimum age for criminal responsibility be raised from seven to 10.

It is only human nature to call for punishment of those who commit crimes.

But many other jurisdictions, from the mainland to Malaysia, long ago recognised it is absurd to suggest a seven-year-old can comprehend all the consequences of a crime.

That does not mean nothing should be done to stop them committing further crimes. The law already allows the Social Welfare Department to apply for a care and protection order for those beyond control or a threat to society.

But little is more likely to turn a first-time offender into a hardened criminal than forcing them to face the ordeal of a trial and endure the stigma of a criminal record.

The present law is a legacy of the colonial era which even England has abandoned. Change is long overdue; the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called for this in 1992.

If anything, there is a case for raising the minimum age limit even further. Some social workers suggest it be set at 12. But that would only intensify opposition.

In any case, anyone under 14 will still be partly protected by the legal principle that the prosecution must prove the offender knew his acts were not just mischievous but also seriously wrong.

The Government may not be keen to initiate any change, given the controversy this will arouse. But it is very much in Hong Kong's interests that it should do so.

In a just society punishment must be restricted to those who understand the consequences of their crimes. And that clearly does not include young children.