UK Case: When Is a Child Too Young to Be Tried for Rape?

Two boys, 10 and 11, were convicted in a case that's ignited furious debate

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A child rape case in Britain has ignited intense debate over both attitudes towards rape victims and the right way to try children. Two boys, aged 10 and 11, were convicted of attempted rape based on the testimony of their victim--an eight-year-old girl who, under cross examination, said she had earlier lied about the attempted rape--and one witness, also a child. Though the lawyers and judge in the case dispensed with the customary wigs and robes for this case, and set up a court schedule that was more child-friendly, the judge expressed concern over the way children are tried under the current system.

It seems impossible that such a story could fail to disturb. Indeed, commentators have railed against multiple aspects of the case, including the nature of the public outcry. When is a child too young to be tried for rape? When is a victim too young to be cross-examined? And are rape cases being fairly tried to begin with? Here are merely a few of the contradictory objections being raised:
  • This Wouldn't Have Happened with Adults The Telegraph's Mary Riddell is horrified that the boys, "too young to know what was going on, were convicted on evidence so unconvincing that it would surely not have led to a conviction had the case involved adults." She thinks the new British "coalition Government should re-examine the age of criminal responsibility ... set up the kinder, inquisitorial system ... [or] use criminal justice not as a default, but as a last resort."
  • If They Had Been Adults, the Conviction Wouldn't Be Questioned, Alex DiBranco counters at "Some people are trying to allege that 10- and 11-year-olds aren't capable of committing rape, and, more disturbingly, that we shouldn't take a rape accusation by an 8-year-old seriously." She cites Philip Johnston in The Telegraph, wondering why the system tried the rape of an "eight-year-old, who cannot possibly know what it means?" Asks Di Branco:
Say the perpetrators weren't 10 and 11. Say they were 18, 25, 35, or 50. And say an eight-year-old girl told her mother that this middle-aged adult had forcibly removed her underwear and attempted to penetrate her. Would you say that authorities should just dismiss this case? "Oh, just tell her to go back to playing with dolls, she can't possibly know what rape is anyway."
  • We Need a Better System, argues Maggie Atkinson at The Guardian. She agrees that the girl, as the prosecution argued, "has the same right to protection of the law as an adult," but wonders about the "effect" of cross-examination on an eight-year-old. She's also concerned about the boys' comprehension of the trial: "I am not suggesting children who do wrong should not have to face up to, and be accountable for, their actions; but there should be a more effective way of doing this ... to ensure that the truth of serious matters is identified, that victims get the support and protection that is their right, and that alleged child perpetrators are provided with the interventions needed to minimise the chance of repeating their wrongdoing."
  • A Debate Long Overdue Loretta Loach recalls, as do many in the British press, a case of two boys harassing and murdering one victim that did not receive such public outcry over adult trials. She approves of the debate at least being raised now: "It is unnecessary to undermine the seriousness of what took place between the children in order to conclude that they should never have been subjected to an adult criminal trial."
  • Boys and Girls Will Be Boys and Girls At The Independent, Virginia Ironside wonders: "did none of the jury have a normal childhood?" Children experimenting and exposing themselves to each other in games is normal, she argues: "Children's interest in sex starts far earlier than most of us like to admit," she writes, and "if every male child were arrested for playing doctors and nurses, then I doubt if there'd be a single bloke walking the streets free today." She admits "it may be that there was something rather more sinister about these boys," but thinks "their age should have provided mitigating circumstances, since the evidence was so vague." The Telegraph's Philip Johnson concurs: "the two boys must be pre-pubescent, so how could there have been any sexual motivation behind what happened?"
  • Except When There's an Anti-Girl Bias Also at The Independent, Joan Smith acknowledges uncertainty "about the morality of trying children in adult courts," but is disturbed by the defense's argument that the event in question was "a consensual game of 'doctors and nurses' ... blown out of all proportion." That, she says, is "the standard defense of just about every rapist who has the misfortune to find himself in court." This, combined with public sentiment on behalf of the boys, brings her to a troubling conclusion:
the public mood is as inconsistent on this issue as the popular press. In this latest case, it's clear that the person who suffered most during the trial was the victim--and that's an indictment of the way the criminal justice treats victims of sexual assault, regardless of how old they are.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.