Victoria Legal Aid

Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14

Children under the age of 14 need health and welfare support, not criminalisation.

The age of criminal responsibility in Victoria should be raised to 14 years old, without delay.

Making this change alongside appropriate investment in early intervention and intensive support services is the best way to support children to develop positive behaviours and to fulfil their potential.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility would also contribute to addressing the systemic racism which leads to the overcriminalisation of First Nations children, and children from communities of colour.

We acknowledge the Victorian Government’s decision to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in 2024, with a further move to 14 in 2027 for most offending.

But we will continue to advocate for the age of criminal responsibility to be lifted to 14 without delay, in line with international standards and evidence.

We are a member of the Change the Record – Raise the AgeExternal Link campaign.

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Supporting children to thrive

Expand health and welfare support for young people

Many children we see in the youth justice system have experienced serious trauma and early life stresses such as abuse or neglect, mental health issues or cognitive impairment.

Rather than a criminal justice response, children need access to culturally appropriate early intervention services and prevention programs. This includes having a safe and secure home, connection to family and community, and access to education.

By providing intensive, wrap-around health and welfare support, the community can help children to address the complex issues which may be contributing to their behaviour.

Raise the age to 14 years old

There is strong consensus between health, social services and legal organisations that children under the age of 14 do not have the maturity to be held criminally responsible for their actions.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old without delay would allow children to receive the support they need without coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

In our daily practice, we see the harm the criminal justice system causes to children and the way that harm can endure. The younger a child is at their first sentence, the more likely they are to go on to spend time in prison as an adult.

Removing contact with the criminal justice system for children under 14 means early intervention and prevention programs can support children to change their behaviour before they become entrenched in the justice system.

Current protections aren’t enough

The law currently presumes that children under the age of 14 lack the maturity to be held criminally responsible, because their capacity for moral reasoning is still developing.

Under this principle, called doli incapax, a child under 14 should not be held criminally responsible unless it is proven that they knew their actions were very morally wrong. This requires the court to consider a range of factors in each case including the child’s cognitive, intellectual and moral development, and their upbringing, education and environment.

But this principle does not prevent a child from entering the criminal justice system or being held on remand while their capacity is assessed.

In our practice experience, the current application of doli incapax is inconsistent and time consuming to decide. It’s not a substitute to raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

A state-wide specialist Children’s Court

Children who are brought into the criminal justice or child protection systems need a specialised and consistent approach to their matters, regardless of where they live. We have consistently advocated for a state-wide expansion of the specialist Children’s Court to respond to the unique needs of children.

More information

Read our response to the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s investigation into the criminal justice and child protection systems.

Read our public submissions on the VLA Library catalogueExternal Link .

Disclaimer: The material in this print-out relates to the law as it applies in the state of Victoria. It is intended as a general guide only. Readers should not act on the basis of any material in this print-out without getting legal advice about their own particular situations. Victoria Legal Aid disclaims any liability howsoever caused to any person in respect of any action taken in reliance on the contents of the publication.

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Reviewed 01 April 2024

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