WHEN are children capable of observing the rules of law? It's a question that legislators will be debating soon as doubts set in about the minimum age at which local children can face criminal charges. Currently, anyone at or above the age of seven can be charged with a criminal offence. From July 1986 to December 1993, the only years that statistics are available for, 145 children aged from seven to 10 were convicted of offences. Sentences imposed have ranged from probation to fines but none has been sent to jail. Last year 31 seven to 10-year-olds were charged with offences including shoplifting, handling stolen goods and trafficking in dangerous drugs. One was arrested for arson and five for burglary. Four were convicted. United Democrats chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming has proposed the issue be discussed by the Legislative Council's Administration of Justice and Legal Services panel, of which he is a member, in October. Lee and other legislators favour raising the minimum age to 10 in line with Britain and the United States as they are sceptical whether children below 10 are capable of committing an offence with intent. Hong Kong is one of a small number of countries where children as young as seven can be found guilty of criminal offences, Lee told a recent Legco sitting. Others include Singapore and India. Panel member and lawyer Anna Wu Hung-yuk said Hong Kong had followed the British system in making seven the minimum age for criminal prosecution, but failed to change it when Britain altered its law. ''It seems unfair to charge children between seven and 10. They are far from mature; and 10-year-olds are not much better. Sentencing or the fact that they are charged may have a negative psychological impact on them,'' she said. ''Judging from crime statistics, the majority of the children convicted only committed minor offences,'' she added. All child cases are heard by a juvenile court which is closed to the public to protect the children's identity and judges have been lenient with those found guilty. Last year, one of the youngsters convicted was fined (paid by the parents), one placed in the temporary care of the Social Welfare Department and the other two were cautioned and discharged. All were spared a criminal record. Legislators are not the only ones with reservations about convicting a young child. Fu Suk-yin, a counsellor at the Hong Kong Boys' and Girls' Association said: ''Seven-year-olds act mostly according to instincts. They are at an early stage of moral development, having just started primary education. They don't think much about consequences until they reach 10 or 11. ''Even if a child commits a violent crime, it does not necessarily mean that he is carrying out the offence knowingly. He might simply have copied others,'' Ms Fu said. To stop children breaking the law, parental guidance is important regardless of a child's age, she says. Clinical psychologist Li Shing-fu agrees, saying that children from uncaring families are more likely to fall into criminal behaviour. ''Children need their parents' company. They need to be cared for and nurtured. Parents should also spend time with their teenage kids; they just need to be more sensitive in getting along with them,'' said Mr Li, who spent 10 years working for the Correctional Services and Social Welfare Departments. He recalls one schoolgirl who resorted to shoplifting because she had been neglected at home. ''She was in Primary Five,'' said Mr Li, a former probation officer. ''Because she was born with deformities, her mother never accepted her even though she was her own daughter. The girl was beaten up at home by the mother at times, said Mr Li. ''She was warm and kind to her other daughters but not to this one. The father just stayed on the sidelines.'' Deprived of treats and presents, the girl one day went into a department store and stole some stationery she had been longing for. She was caught and arrested. But the police did not take her to court. Instead they referred her case to the Social Welfare Department (SWD), which then placed her in a small-group home, where she lived with other problem children under the care of social workers and a husband-and-wife team who live in residence. The SWD provides help for young children who have been charged but not convicted when it appears the child is suffering from family problems. Help also came through counselling both for the girl and her family. ''The mother was resistant to counselling at first; she did not want people to know she had discriminated against her own daughter. But she accepted it and in the end realised the talents and virtues of her daughter,'' Mr Li said. As a result, the youngster was eventually reunited with her family and her once-cool relationship with her mother improved. The counselling lasted two years. But it doesn't work every time, Mr Li added. In one unsuccessful case, the offender - a primary school student - was caught shoplifting under peer influence. ''He felt resentful towards his step-mother, whom he thought was biased against him. His father was always on overseas trips.'' Mr Li's attempts to restore the family relationship proved futile because the parents had given up on the boy, Mr Li noted. Mr Li, now teaching at Hong Kong Polytechnic, has fewer qualms about the age at which a child faces prosecution. ''Children by the age of seven usually already have the concepts of right and wrong.'' But, he adds, whether children can do what's deemed right and stay out of trouble is a different matter. ''This very much depends on the way he is brought up at home,'' Mr Li said. ''A child is not going to stop doing what his parents says is undesirable if the parents themselves do it.'' Furthermore, a child who feels loved and cared for will have little incentive to commit a crime. ''There are no substitutes for parents; Filipino maids can't be, nor can grandparents,'' Mr Li said.