Stronger safeguards for children facing criminal proceedings

Safeguards for children who are accused of – or suspected of carrying out – a crime are to be strengthened through proposed amendments to the Criminal Code discussed in Parliament this evening.

The amendments would transpose three EU directives, including Directive 2016/800 on procedural safeguards for children who are suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings.

Presently, the Criminal Code exempts those under 14 from any criminal responsibility, and those under 16 from criminal responsibility in cases where crimes are committed “without any mischievous discretion.” But so far, Maltese law provides the same legal protections to children and adults involved in criminal proceedings.

Legal and parental access guaranteed

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis observed that the amendments would guarantee various rights to children specifically addressing their needs, starting with the right to be informed of the legal protections that they enjoy. Children would also have the right to have their parents or legal guardians kept informed, unless this is deemed contrary to their best interest or could jeopardise criminal proceedings.

Children would similarly have the right to be accompanied by their parents or legal guardians during proceedings, as well as the right to appear in person and to participate in their trial.

Access to a lawyer is also guaranteed throughout proceedings, and save for exceptional circumstances, questioning by police shall be postponed until the necessary arrangements are made. Any questioning of children would also need to be filmed wherever this would be proportionate to the crime being investigated.

Individual assessments and detention restrictions

Children will have the right to an individual assessment to determine their need for protection, education, training and social integration. This assessment would take into account their personality and maturity, their economic, social and family background and any specific vulnerabilities they might have.

Additionally, children who are detained as a result of criminal proceedings would be entitled to medical examinations to assess their general mental and physical condition.

The amendments specify that the deprivation of liberty of children should only be a measure of last resort and limited to the shortest possible period of time. Additionally, children should be detained separately from adults, with detention authorities bound to ensure that their right to education or training is respected.

Young offenders need additional support

In her intervention, Nationalist Party MP Therese Comodini Cachia welcomed the increased protections that would be provided to children facing criminal proceedings, but noted that additional effort was needed to address their plight.

She noted that these children’s situation is often addressed too late, leaving them in a situation that may be difficult to escape, with the risk of leaving them dependent on the system for the rest of their lives.

“It is not the scope of these amendments, but this is an issue that we need to tackle with courage,” the MP said.