x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Criminal age for children in UAE to increase to 10 years

Currently, the "age of criminal responsibility" is 7 in the UAE, meaning that children 7 to 18 can be tried as juveniles and sentenced to rehabilitation or detention facilities.

DUBAI // The age at which a child can be held liable for a crime would increase from seven to 10 under amended legislation drafted by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Delinquent youths aged seven to 18 can be tried as juveniles and sentenced to rehabilitation facilities, separate from adult prisons.

The “age of criminal responsibility” varies from country to country.

A 2010 Unicef report urged the UAE to raise its cut-off, saying that seven was a “very low age”. The standard is 10 in England and as high as 14 or 15 in many other countries.

But it would be extremely rare for a child under 10 to be charged with a crime in the UAE, according to Bushra Qayed, head of the women and children section of the Dubai Community Development Authority.

“I’ve been working with juveniles for 15 years,” she said in October. “I didn’t find anyone under 11.”

The plan to raise the age was included in proposed amendments to the federal law on juvenile delinquents, finalised recently by the Ministry of Social Affairs, according to Al Ittihad, The National’s sister Arabic language newspaper. The amendments are still preliminary; they must be reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Justice.

“The amendments introduced a series of preventive measures that aim to prevent delinquency,” said Mariam Al Roumi, Minister of Social Affairs.

“They also provided for the possibility of following up on juveniles within their families and taking appropriate measures to protect them, even from their parents.”

She added: “Following a number of discussions and meetings, an agreement was reached with all relevant authorities over the amendments of the juvenile delinquents law. The amendments would be submitted to the technical committee at the Ministry of Justice for review and approval during the present year.”

This is the first time the juvenile delinquency law has been amended. The proposed amendments would also intensify sanctions on neglectful parents, according to Al Ittihad.

The debate over when children should be held responsible for crimes – from petty theft to violent attacks – hinges on different interpretations of maturity. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends an age of at least 12.

However, a 2011 report on “Neuroscience and the Law” by The Royal Society, a UK based scientific fellowship, recommended a more individualised approach, saying that an “arbitrary cut-off age may not be justifiable”.

The neural circuits that influence behaviour continue to develop until at least 20 years of age, the report noted. The part of the brain most important for judgment, decision-making and impulse control is “the slowest to mature”, the report said.

“It is clear that at the age of 10 the brain is developmentally immature, and continues to undergo important changes linked to regulating one’s own behaviour,” the report said.

Development also differs from child to child. “Obviously there is a broad range,” said Dr Muhammad Tahir, the head of psychology at Health Call Clinic in Dubai. “Some kids mature early and others mature late.”

For example, around the ages of eight, nine, and 10, many children are still developing the concept that death is irreversible and final, he said.

From age 10 onwards, children undergo rapid changes as they enter adolescence. “This is the age at which they start having physical and mental development at a quick pace and are able to understand these concepts,” he said.

The age of criminal responsibility is different from the age of “criminal majority”, at which youths can be tried and sentenced as adults.

Currently, offenders under 18 are tried as juveniles. They cannot receive the death penalty.

vnereim@thenational.ae