The primary legislation governing offenders under the age of 18 in Ireland is the Children Act 2001 as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2006.   Children are clearly a vulnerable group of society and this legislation provides for a significantly different criminal justice system for young offenders to that governing adults.

Age of Criminal Responsibility

The 2001 Act as amended provides that a child under the age of 12 will not be charged with a criminal offence.  Furthermore, if a child under the age of 14 is charged with a criminal offence, no further court proceedings will be taken in the matter without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Though the legislation specifically states that a child under the age of 12 cannot be charged with a criminal offence, a child aged 10 or 11 may be charged with certain offences of a very serious nature, namely being murder, manslaughter, rape or aggravated sexual assault.

Arrest and Detention of  Young Offenders

Persons under the age of 18 are subject to similar legislative powers of arrest and detention to those governing adults. For example, a young offender may be arrested and detained in a Garda station for questioning.

However, certain measures are taken by Gardai as provided for in the 2001 Act when dealing with child detainees. For example, a child detainee must be kept separate from adult detainees and may only be detained in a cell where there is no other secure accommodation available.  Furthermore, the parent or guardian of the child must be notified of his/her detention and the parent or guardian’s attendance at the Garda station must be requested. No questioning is to be commenced without a parent or guardian being present.

The  Children Court 

Children who have been charged with criminal offences are dealt with in separate court proceedings to those involving adults. The Children Court takes place in a different room or building, or on a different day or time from the other courts.

Attendance by the parent or guardian of the child is required during the proceedings. Unlike most other courts, only certain persons are permitted to be present during proceedings, such as parents or guardians of the young offender, persons directly involved in the proceedings, legal advisors and other persons whose presence the court has permitted.

When sentencing a child who has been convicted of a criminal offence, the legislation provides that a period of detention should only be imposed as a measure of last resort.  Alternative sanctions available to a judge of the Children Court are, for example,  an order that a parent or guardian pay compensation, a parental supervision order or an order for community service.

Furthermore, it is important to note that if a child is convicted of an offence (apart from a serious offence, for example, murder, manslaughter or rape), the legislation provides for the removal of a criminal record after a three year period provided he or she has not reoffended during that three year period.  This affords the young offender a clean record going forward.