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Age of Criminal Liability (ACT)

The age of criminal responsibility is the youngest age at which a person can be charged with a criminal offence. In the ACT, the age currently stands at 10. However, the ACT government has committed to raising the age of criminal liability incrementally – first to 12, and then to 14. This page deals with the age of criminal liability in the ACT.

Children under 10

A child under 10 cannot be arrested or charged with an offence in the ACT. Young children are considered insufficiently mature to be held criminally responsible for their actions.

If a child under 10 does an act that would be a criminal offence if done by an older person, the matter will be dealt with by parents and teachers. The child may be referred for counselling or have other interventions put in place, but the criminal justice system will not be involved.

Children between 10 and 14

When a child is aged over 10 but under 14, they can be charged with criminal offences. However, there is presumption that a child under 14 is not capable of being guilty of an offence. This principle is known as doli incapax (incapable of evil). The doli incapax presumption can be rebutted by evidence that the child did know that their actions were seriously wrong.

When a child under 14 is prosecuted, the prosecution must adduce evidence that the accused young person understood the nature of their actions and knew that they were wrong as opposed to merely naughty.

If the court is satisfied that the child had the capacity to understand what they were doing, it may find the child guilty. If not, it must acquit them.

Diversion programs

When a young person commits a minor offence that is related to alcohol or drug use, the matter may be dealt with through a diversionary program if this is appropriate. A matter will only be diverted if the young person admits the offence and both they and their parents consent to the matter being diverted, and where they are eligible for the program.

When a matter is dealt with by way of diversion, the young person will be required to take part is specified programs. If the requirements of diversion are successfully completed, there will be no further action. This means that the young person will not get a criminal record and will not have to attend court.

Prosecution of children in the ACT

When a person under 18 is charged with criminal offences, their matter will commence in the Children’s Court. Most criminal matters where the accused is a child are also finished in the Children’s Court. However, very serious indictable matters are finalised in the Supreme Court.

When a young person is found guilty of an offence, the court can impose one or more of a range of sentencing orders including fines, good behaviour orders, community-based sentences and terms of detention.

The court may also record a conviction against the young person.

Raising the age of criminal liability

For some time there has been widespread concern that the age of criminal liability in all Australian states and territories is too low. An increasingly high number of young children, especially Indigenous children, are in youth detention either after being sentenced or while on remand.

Advocates of raising the age of criminal liability argue that criminalising young people at an early age leads to poor long-term outcomes, including a reduced chance the person will complete their education and a higher chance they will come into contact with the justice system as an adult.

In May 2023, the ACT government introduced The Justice (Age of Criminal Responsibility) Legislation Amendment Bill to the Legislative Assembly. The Bill seeks to raise the age to 12 on commencement, and to 14 by July 2025 for better community outcomes and lower recidivism rates.

Age of criminal liability in other jurisdictions

In August 2023, the Northern Territory became the first Australian jurisdiction to raise the age of criminal liability from 10 to 12. The Queensland government has given its ‘in principle’ support to raising the age to 12, and Victoria plans to raise the age first to 12 and then to 14 by 2027.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Fernanda Dahlstrom

This article was written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. She has also completed a Master’s in Writing and Literature. Fernanda practised law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and in family law in Queensland.

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