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Various jurisdictions including Canada, England and Wales and Washington have laws which state, apparently categorically, that children under a certain age cannot commit crimes or be convicted of crimes. E.g. Canada's criminal code section 13 says:

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.

Does this mean that a minor under the specified age could "openly have, say, a contract killer career, retire at [the specified age] and walk free"?

What legal mechanism would stop a child that is younger than their jurisdiction's minimum age for criminal liability from doing this?

There may very well be legal consequences for the minor's parents or legal guardians, but this question is specifically about the legal consequences for the minor.

(This question is a follow-up to a discussion on this other Q&A, where @Greendrake proposed this hypothetical example.)

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    @StianYttervik The contract would of course be null and void just by virtue of it being illegal. "Contract" is used here just to denote that killing is done in exchange for money, not to state that there's a legally enforceable contract.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 15, 2023 at 10:48
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    @Greendrake exactly. Organized crime groups use such "contracts" all the time, e.g. for the purchase or shipment of drugs. The reason that they enforce them with violence (e.g. shoot you if you don't deliver as promised) is because they have no recourse to the courts to enforce them. Jan 15, 2023 at 17:58
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    In the USA, children are often recruited by gangs for the purposes of committing killings and carjackings, knowing full well that even if convicted, their entire records are expunged when they reach 18yo. They'd still go to juvenile detention (jail for young adults) if caught, however.
    – Jamin Grey
    Jan 15, 2023 at 21:16
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    Quite a few cities in Europe likewise have persisting problems with organized pickpocketing groups, which likewise apparently tend to recruit underage actors for the same reasons (see for example Rome's Underage Pickpockets) Jan 16, 2023 at 0:56
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    @JeopardyTempest Was that the case of Crown v. Twist?
    – Barmar
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:37

5 Answers 5

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Child protective services would very likely intervene to place the child in circumstances where they can be better supervised for their own well-being and safety.

See generally and for example: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/public-safety/protecting-children and the Child, Family and Community Service Act.

Section 15(2) specifically states, "If the child has killed, assaulted or endangered another person, the police officer must report the circumstances to a director, and, in any other case, may report the circumstances to a director."

After a report to the director, the director must investigate the child's need for protection and can make orders for a plan of care, issue supervision orders, remove the child, and ultimately place them in the custody of another person or in the care of the director.

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In , a child below the age of 14 cannot be guilty of a crime. However, a family court may order measures regarding the welfare of the child. In a case like the one you describe, or even somewhat less extreme ones, this might be taking the child out of the family and into a care home where the child would be locked up for his or her own good.

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    Would a chlid taken into care "for their own good" necessarily be released and face no legal consequences once they reached adulthood? Or could they be held beyond adulthood ostensibly "for their own good" (but really for society's good)?
    – kaya3
    Jan 14, 2023 at 16:36
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    @kaya3: Once they are adults, the extra protection afforded to children no longer applies, so there are a dozen other possibilities such as Unterbindungsgewahrsam (preventative arrest). This particular possibility requires a very high burden of proof, though, for obvious reasons (and the non-obvious reason that this was introduced by the Nazis, which always warrants an extra sharp eye). There are also more standard ones such as involuntary committal into a psychiatric facility (presumably, such a person like you describe would suffer from some kind of condition such as sociopathy). Jan 14, 2023 at 19:38
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Parents have an obligation to make their children behave, to a certain extent. If the parents allow their child to engage in some criminal enterprise, the courts have broad jurisdiction to intervene, and can terminate the parent-child relationship and appoint someone else to supervise the child. This includes being assigned to a shelter with locked doors. This is not the same as conviction and punishment for committing an illegal act, it is about protecting the interests of the child. (I understand that this may seem like a distinction without a difference.) A propos your scenario, let us dial the crime back a bit: the child was a lookout for a burglary ring, but stopped (having been undetected) and thereafter lived a virtuous life. Then the child can "get away with it". The question that the courts would address in any termination of relation and assignment to custodial care case is whether the situation warranting the action still exists. In the case of a 12 year old contract killer with a 6 year career, it is unimaginable that the courts would think that the situation no longer exists.

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  • Your "get away with it" scenario would apply if the child truly did fully abandon the activity at age 12 and were not caught until, say, 35. If they were caught "in the act" or shortly thereafter, the "situation" would likely be deemed to still apply and thus the court would order the child into some sort of institution or program. Jan 21, 2023 at 13:45
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In the UK, the murder of James Bulger was carried out by two 10-year-old boys. They were tried, convicted, and spent the rest of their youth in young offenders institutions. As adults, various restrictions apply to where they can go and what they can do for the rest of their lives.

The key element was the question of whether the boys knew that what they were doing was wrong. If your hypothetical killer can tell right from wrong, they will be convicted the same way.

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    The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is (and was at the time) 10 years old, so my understanding is that the two boys who murdered James Bulger were both old enough to be tried and convicted under the law. So this case is somewhat relevant but doesn't directly answer the question.
    – kaya3
    Jan 15, 2023 at 14:24
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    The law doesn't prevent the legal system from making an exception. If a particular child is found to be a professional hitman, I'm certain the government will make an emergency exception to prevent that kid from release.
    – Nelson
    Jan 17, 2023 at 0:48
  • @Nelson I was under the impression that the whole premise of western law is to specifically prevent something like that. I.e. that the law is applied equally and predictably to all, without the possibility of making arbitrary exceptions. Otherwise it violates the entire premise of the rule of law; how is it different from an absolute monarchy, where the royals can decide to override the law at-will?
    – Ruslan
    Jan 17, 2023 at 15:01
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    @Ruslan because the Government would use provisions of the law, or pass a new law though Parliament to handle the situation and there would be a right of judicial review. There is a strong assumption against retrospective action but it's not absolute.
    – deep64blue
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:07
  • @Ruslan The main difference is legal exceptions involve a lot of people. A lot. All levels of government, lots of different people, different news media coverage, experts of the law writing letters both for and against, people making sure the exception is not too broad, different systems working together to pass a bill of some sort, and generally it is a very democratic process.
    – Nelson
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:27
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In England, the absolute age of criminal responsibility is 10, so in the strictest sense your answer is that a child aged 11 or 12 who commits a murder (or series of murders) would be held responsible and charged with murder. That case would escalate from the Youth Court to the Crown Court and they would be sentenced.

Children between 10 and 17 can be arrested and taken to court if they commit a crime.

They are treated differently from adults and are:

dealt with by youth courts
given different sentences
sent to special secure centres for young people, not adult prisons

Gov.uk - Age of criminal responsibility

The sentences available to the courts would be up to and including an 'extended duration sentence', one appropriate to the severity of the crime (e.g. 10-20+ years), but usually less.


If you're asking what would happen if a child was below the age of criminal responsibility (e.g. 10), then the answer is different. These children can't be charged with a crime, but they can be taken into care.

Children under 10 cannot be charged with committing a criminal offence. However, they can be given a:

Local Child Curfew
Child Safety Order
Children under 10 who break the law regularly can sometimes be taken into care, or their parents could be held responsible.

Gov.uk - What happens if a child under 10 breaks the law?

Whoever directed their activities could obviously be charged with a range of offences including murder (e.g. in the sense that the child was used as a weapon) and child endangerment.

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    To be clear, the number 12 came from a comment referencing Canadian law, which I quoted; the text of my question says "under the specified age", which as you say is 10 in the UK.
    – kaya3
    Jan 15, 2023 at 14:19
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    @kaya3 - I've also addressed that in the latter part of my answer. Someone below the age of criminal responsibility can commit any number of murders and face no criminal charges. That doesn't, however, mean that there would be no repercussions
    – Richard
    Jan 15, 2023 at 17:30

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