Children charged with serious crimes, including murder, face a significantly different criminal justice process than their adult counterparts.
The Children Act 2001 defines the age of criminal responsibility as 12 years old, meaning no child under that age can be charged with an offence. There are exceptions to this, however, such as in cases of suspected rape or murder. In such cases children age 10 and 11 can be charged with an offence.
In all cases where a child is under 14 years old gardaí must obtain the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions before proceeding with a charge.
In the vast majority of cases, juvenile crimes are dealt with in the Children’s Court. This is a branch of the District Court, meaning trials are conducted by a judge without a jury, and the maximum sentence on any one crime is 12 months.
In Dublin there is a dedicated Children’s Court complex in Smithfield Square, while elsewhere in the country the local District Court usually sets aside a few days a month to deal with juvenile cases.
As a court dealing solely with underage defendants, the Children’s Court must also abide by the Children Act 2001 which states that prison, or detention as it is known in juvenile cases, should only be used as a last resort. Most convicted offenders are dealt with through some form of community sanction, including diversion and restorative justice programmes.
The hearings tend to be more informal than in adult courts, with the judge often personally addressing the child and warning them in gentle but firm tones of the consequences if they continue to offend.
Access to the court is high restricted, especially in the Dublin complex. Lawyers, gardaí and the child’s parents or guardians are usually the only ones allowed in, along with a small number of accredited journalists.
However not all cases remain in the Children’s Court. Serious charges, such as homicide offences, are sent forward to either the Circuit or Central Criminal Courts. Here the children are effectively tried as adults before a judge and jury, although access to the court is still restricted.
If convicted the courts have much wider sentencing powers, but the use of prison as a last resort still applies.
Whether they are dealt with in the Children’s Court or otherwise, it is an offence to identify any child defendant. This includes publishing any identifying features such as their school or family details.
The same rules that apply for the press also apply to social media. Judges in such cases now regularly remind the public that naming a child defendant online is a contempt of court.
Some offences carry mandatory sentences. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence, while possession of large amounts of drugs is punishable by a presumptive mandatory minimum of 10 years.
The Children’s Act is silent on mandatory sentences, but the legal consensus is they don’t apply to children even in cases of murder.
Judges can sentence a child to life imprisonment but it is not required. For example, in 2005 Mr Justice Barry White sentenced a 15-year-old boy to life imprisonment for murder, but ordered the sentence be brought before him again in a decade for review. In 2014 he reviewed the sentence, and set a release date for 2016.
This approach to sentencing was appealed by both the child and the DPP, but the Appeal Court ruled it was appropriate.