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Penny Booth: "A spectacle that has no place in an intelligent society"

Date:1 JUN 2010

"A spectacle that has no place in an intelligent society"

Penny BoothIn the news last week you could not have missed the outcome of the trial at the Old Bailey of the now youngest ever sex offenders in Britain. Two boys, ten at the time of the offence, were found guilty by a ten-to-two majority verdict of the attempted rape of an eight year old girl. The court officials sat in suits and gave up wigs for the trial, the victim gave evidence via video link, the perpetrators sat with their mothers in the court. Contradictory evidence was apparent; the girl appeared to recant under questioning, but the trial went ahead. Something certainly happened. A crime was committed.

Many would say that the ‘crime' that had been committed took place at the Old Bailey when such small children were put on trial. Others would say that a crime is a crime no matter the age of the perpetrators beyond the age of criminal responsibility and the age or circumstances of the victim. That's what it's all about, isn't it - blind justice applied to all? Wait a minute, though, shouldn't we consider what was gained from this trial?

Justice should apply even though we find it uncomfortable - not to have done so would have been a further crime upon the victim and all the other victims of crimes swept under a lumpy carpet. Once we operate a system like this, then there is no other option but for it to apply. After all, supposing there had been a decision not to prosecute - what then? Wait until some future event if the perpetrators had done this to a victim in ten years time? To delve into this current event then would certainly have raised the hackles of those right-thinking citizens and raised cries of ‘soft' treatment from the future to the past - all over the tabloids.

There must be a better approach, though, to serious crimes committed by very young children where treatment and not punishment should be the focus. Our legal system is predicated on winners and losers and on punishment of crimes. They manage something better than this for minors in other countries where the age of criminal responsibility is higher. That has got to be a consideration in the circumstances and an issue for discussion and possible law reform for the government. Let us at least have an intelligent discussion about this. Please?

Something else is of concern with this case, though. Some have said, sneaking their comments into the newspapers and onto websites, that the real perpetrator was the boy from the single-parent family with the mother who showed little real commitment, the one from the poor housing estate whose life-chances were already damaged. That's all right then - we have our explanation so we can sleep easy in our beds tonight because we know who the bogey-men are. ‘It's the child of a single-parent family wot done it!'- what utter cowardice and laziness it is to allow our thinking to slump into such an easy explanation for a complex situation. There are many types of ‘single-parent families' and many of them do very well - without sounding patronising. Why shouldn't they? There are complex explanations (if explanation is what we are after) for these situations arising and for such terrible events to unfold with children so young, and lumping people under superficial and biased titles helps no-one, least of all the three young victims.

A third issue with this case lies with our society - it is much ‘sexualised'; on hoardings and adverts we display bodies exposed, sanitised and ‘vanitised' for the sake of persuasion. We produce and buy stiletto shoes for babies, bikinis for toddlers and macho-shirts and jackets for what are just little boys. We anticipate ‘needs' that mutate into ‘wants' and advise on anything that has the taste of failure about it, including the created needs for perfect sex lives. You don't have to let children watch dodgy DVDs and read pornographic magazines to bring them up against each other in undesirable ways in our society today. Sex has a lot to answer for. Early encounters when the individual is ‘unready' to deal with this can damage so easily. No wonder the young victim is reported to have said that the boys had "done sex with me".

The convicted children are awaiting sentence and have been ordered to sign the sex offenders register. All three children are certainly victims, and it is no disparagement to the victim of this attempted rape to say that. In these cases, and with these circumstances, there are no ‘winners' and only ‘losers', so no wonder it sits ill with English Law.

Sir Ken Macdonald wrote in The Times that this trial was "a spectacle that has no place in an intelligent society" - but this isn't one, is it?

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.