EURO 2016: Children's rights champions of Europe

How do the Euro 2016 countries stack up on juvenile justice?

[10 June 2016] - A lot has been written about the footballing form and potential of the 24 nations competing in France for European honours over the coming weeks. We know that if each team plays to their standing in the Uefa rankings, Germany will beat Spain in the final, with England beating Portugal in the third place play-offs.

However, the outcome would be quite different if each country were ranked in terms of their human rights record, or quantifiable aspects of juvenile justice. This blog looks at how the Euro 2016 countries compare on access to justice for children, minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) and life imprisonment for children.

To kick off this competition, the first area to look at is access to justice for children. In February 2016 the Child Rights International Network (CRIN) published a report assessing every country in the world for its performance on access to justice for children. It takes into consideration a huge number of variables including the legal status of the child and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in municipal law, remedies in criminal and civil law, as well as practical matters like venue, legal aid and timeliness. Having considered and weighted all of these factors, CRIN was able to give each country a percentage and produce a table ranking 197 countries.

Rating countries for qualitative performance is fraught with difficulties. Some NGOs, such as Amnesty International, eschew the idea. Others, like Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders, produce regular rankings of countries’ performances. Justice, and access to it, is culturally and historically contingent, and putting a number on it is never as precise as one might like.

Methodologically, how can your weighting take into account the significance of cultural and political factors which may ameliorate or aggravate a policy? CRIN’s researchers, working with partners around the world, assessed countries by how they compared to a ‘model report’ on access to justice. They then applied the countries’ performance in each category to the model and used this to establish a score in each element of the study which then informed the global ‘CRIN ranking’.

The top three countries on access to justice for children globally are Belgium, Portugal and Spain, all strong contenders for overall victory this year. Of the Euro 2016 countries, Iceland is next with a world ranking of 8 (out of 197), while England and Wales come in behind them (ranked 10) followed by Northern Ireland (ranked 18).

If each country in the current draw plays to its access to justice ranking, we come out with some surprising results. The winners are easily predicted (Belgium beat Portugal in the final), but some of the earlier stages cause upsets. Northern Ireland would top Group C and Germany (rank 66) would fail to make the knock-out rounds as they limp in, the worst ranked third place team. Sweden, home of many progressive social policies would also fail to qualify from their group, having been narrowly beaten by Ireland.

As the only Euro 2016 teams that share a criminal jurisdiction, England and Wales are ranked equally, meaning that if they play to their CRIN rankings, they will come joint first in their group. As a tie-break England go through first as they have a higher Uefa ranking. In this scenario, England and Northern Ireland make the quarter finals, while Wales goes out in the round of 16. So on the basis of the CRIN rankings of access to justice for children, no UK team will be champions of Europe, or even semi-finalists (Spain would beat Iceland in the third place play-offs).

While it is a credit to the UK nations to rank so highly on access to justice, the sad reality is that they perform exceptionally poorly on MACR and life imprisonment of children. If there was a European Championship in convicting children youngest and sending them to prison longest, the nations of the UK would excel.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland have the youngest minimum age of criminal responsibility at 10. The UK’s nations are not alone in allowing 10-year-olds to be found criminally responsible. Five Euro 2016 nations allow children as young as 10 to be found criminally responsible: England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Switzerland and Wales. Ireland has a general MACR of 12 and only lowers it to 10 in homicide and certain specified sexual offences. The other four nations however allow 10-year-olds to be found criminally liable for any offence. So, on this measure, the lowest MACR, all three UK teams make it to the semis with Switzerland.

In which area of youth justice are the UK nations going to be champions of Europe? The answer is simple and unambiguous. It’s an area where UK nations smash all their competitors with England and Wales shining above all of Europe: life imprisonment of children.

Only five Euro 2016 nations allow children to be sentenced to life imprisonment: England, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Ireland allows for a life sentence to be imposed on children, however there are no known cases and only one case of an adult sentenced to life for a crime committed when he was 17. France is now in the process of abolishing life sentences for children, but it has allowed for life imprisonment of children over 16 and has previously sentenced two children to life imprisonment. One of the sentences was quashed, leaving only one person serving a life sentence in France for an offence committed as a child. These two prisoners are the only people in all the Euro 2016 nations outside the UK to be serving such a sentence. They are two in 650 million.

Life sentences for offences committed as a child are significantly more prevalent in the UK. Indeed with only two people on such a sentence in all the other countries combined, it wouldn’t take much to become champions of Europe. Figures are scant, but in 2004 Northern Ireland had three children serving ‘Detention at the Secretary of State’s Pleasure’. Figures are similarly vague for England & Wales. The Ministry of Justice does not keep records of how many prisoners are serving at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ (the rather perverse name for a life sentence for a child). They statistically morph into the adult lifer population when they hit 22 and the MOJ doesn’t worry about it.

We do know that between 1995 and 2013 some 361 people were sentenced to remain in prison at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’. Alongside these prisoners, the MOJ has stated that 325 people received indefinite sentences for public protection (life sentences for lesser offences, known as IPPs) for offences committed while a child during the inhuman and depressing seven year life of the IPP sentence.

Of the Euro 2016 nations, Wales, Northern Ireland and England can proudly proclaim their progression to the knock-out stages when graded on access to justice for children. Sadly, it is in the areas of minimum age of criminal responsibility and life imprisonment that they really excel. While Belgium may be champions on access to justice, the UK can claim three of the semi-final slots for having the lowest age at which a child can be convicted of a crime. But where the English and Welsh really set themselves apart is in sentencing children to prison for life.

While the rest of the Euro 2016 nations combined have only two prisoners serving life sentences for offences committed as a child, the UK nations have committed hundreds to this fate. If Britain leaves France without a trophy, at least its fans can know that the rest of the nations combined cannot match its modern-day child Gulag.

This article is a guest post for CRIN written by James Mehigan, Lecturer in Criminology, Open University and Barrister, Garden Court Chambers.

Promotional Image: 


Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.