In previous podcasts I have spoken of defences, a legal construct which an accused person can use in answer to the charge. There are two essential elements of a crime: the actus reus or prohibited act, which is the illegal behaviour and the mens rea or the guilty mind, which is the fault requirement. Some defences, negate the actus reus or prohibited act requirement of a crime, meaning that the accused cannot be convicted of the crime as the prohibited act was not committed by the accused voluntarily. This would occur, for example, in the following scenario: a person was driving his car with the window partially open and a wasp flew into the car, attacking the driver, and causing him to drive erratically. In that instance, a charge of dangerous driving under s.249 of the Code would fail as the prohibited act or bad driving was involuntary. The accused did not choose to drive in such as manner but external circumstances, beyond the accused person’s control, caused him to do so.
Another category of defences, known as justifications and excuses, are available even though the accused could be found guilty of the crime. If such a defence is successful, the accused is acquitted of the crime as he or she may be justified in committing the crime or may be excused from responsibility. In Episode 11, I explain these defences more thoroughly and I discuss the defence of duress, an example of the defence of excuse, in my previous blog here. Although these defences, if accepted, typically result in a full acquittal, the exception is the defence of provocation, a form of justification, which is only a partial defence, reducing murder to manslaughter, per s.232 of the Criminal Code. See my previous blog on the issue.
There are also defences, which negate the mens rea or the criminal intention required for a crime. Mistake of fact is such a defence where the accused believes in a set of facts, which, if true, would exonerate the accused. In those circumstances, the accused would not have the intention required to commit the offence.
Still another category of defences, which also relates to the mens rea of an offence, is where the accused is incapable of forming the intent required. Incapacity is difficult to use as a defence and tends to require expert medical evidence to establish the incapacity such as in the defence of intoxication (a common law defence, which has been severely limited by the Code under section 33.1) and mental disorder under s. 16 (or insanity as it was originally called). Another form of incapacity, which does not require medical evidence, is incapacity based on age. This is where section 13 comes into play – in fact, child’s play – as the section reads:
No person shall be convicted of an offence in respect of an act or omission on his part while that person was under the age of twelve years.
Interestingly, the word “child” is not used in the actual section, although it is used in the descriptive heading for the section, Child Under Twelve. As there is no statute of limitation on criminal offences, meaning that a person is still liable for a crime committed years previously, not using the descriptive word “child” in the actual section does make sense. Also note that although the section states a person under twelve years of age cannot be convicted of an offence, he or she may be charged with an offence. Again, if you have been listening/reading my previous podcasts, the Code seems to be focused on the “end game” of conviction and punishment.
Furthermore, this type of incapacity differs from intoxication and mental disorder as the simple proof of age, which is easily done, bars conviction. Intoxication and mental disorder as a defence, not only may require medical evidence but are complex defences, and in the case of mental disorder, has a complex procedure in the Criminal Code. Certainly, in the case of mental disorder, an alternate mental health system is available to take over when the criminal law cannot.
So why is there such a limitation and why is it set at under twelve? Perhaps it is time we do a little historical review to find some answers.
In the 1892 Criminal Code, section 9 prohibited conviction of a person under seven years of age. Traditionally, English common law did not attach responsibility to young children for crimes, as children, like the mentally challenged, could not understand the consequences of their actions and therefore could not be held responsible in criminal court. This was the norm until the advent of the 1980 Young Offenders Act, which replaced the Juvenile Delinquents Act, when the present day age of twelve was substituted for the age of seven. This change in age was supported by psychological and medical research, which showed that the neurological development of a young person was not fully advanced until well into the teens. Thus developed the concept that a person under twelve years of age was incapable of forming the criminal intent. The research on this issue is certainly more complex as I have summarized and I invite you to do your own research on this topic. Needless to say, some academics presently question whether the child is truly incapable of forming an evil intent, although most agree that a child, due to developmental factors, should not be treated the same as an adult. Certainly Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act is based on that premise.
Politics has also come into the issue as the Conservative Party in 1999, through a private member’s Bill, attempted to change the age of incapacity to a child under ten years of age. This Bill did not survive but this concept has survived and may be raised yet again by the government particularly as the now Justice Minister, Peter McKay, was the sponsor of that 1999 amendment.
Additional pressure to change the age of incapacity comes from media reports of children under the age of 12 committing crimes, usually murder, both here and in the UK. It should however be noted that in terms of statistical evidence, 61% of the offences committed by young offenders are committed by the oldest offenders between the ages of 16 and 17. I know all of this fails to explain why the age barrier is under twelve as opposed to under eleven or under thirteen. I believe much of this is connected to societal perceptions and expectations, which do change over time.
To be sure, even though the criminal justice system is not engaged when a child under twelve commits a crime, the social service system can and will deem such a child in need of protection and he or she will be taken into the child welfare system. The focus is then on the reason why the child acted inappropriately and focuses on treatment and not punishment. However, the difference between these two concepts tends to become blurred in the eyes of a young person. An example of this in Alberta is the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Act wherein a child using drugs or alcohol may be taken into a protective “safe house.”
Although the child welfare system may seem to be a kinder and gentler way of dealing with a troubled child, the system is rife with problems such as the power of the state to take children from their biological families and the difficulty of treatment without the fair trial procedures as would be required in the criminal courts. On the other hand, the stigma of a criminal charge and the use of the process-oriented criminal justice system, even if it is supposed to look towards rehabilitation of a young person, tend to provide band-aid solutions, where there are consequences, a bit of treatment, but no long-term solutions.
In the end, the criminal justice system is probably not the answer for a troubled child but the child welfare system may not be either. Perhaps, it is time for us to start thinking of alternative ways, proactive ways, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to engage in play and not crime.