The Consortium for Street Children expresses grave concern at steps being taken by legislators in the Philippines to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Currently the minimum age from which a child can be held criminally responsible in law is 15. House Bill 8858 initially proposed lowering the minimum age to 9 years old. It has since been amended to lower the proposed minimum age to 12 years old and has been approved at second reading by the House of Representatives. The bill only requires one final reading in order to be approved and become law.
The Philippines made strides towards a fair, effective justice system for children by passing the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act in 2006. This law put children’s best interests at the heart of the justice system by focusing on diverting children away from crime and reintegrating child offenders safely back into society. It set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 15 years old and prioritised intervention programmes over criminal liability for all children. This commendable progress is now at risk of being reversed, and children’s protection severely weakened.
We are particularly concerned about the disproportionate effect that this reform will have on street children. Regrettably, it is still common practice for the Philippines authorities to arrest and detain children in order to “rescue” them from the streets, an approach which has been condemned by both the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and civil society. We are concerned that the number of street children arrested and detained in “rescue” operations will increase as more young children fall within the scope of the criminal law.
It has been suggested that lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility will stop adults from using children as vehicles for illegal activity, but the logic behind this is flawed: there is a risk that a lower minimum age of criminal responsibility will encourage them to target and exploit even younger children in order to evade the law.
Under Article 40 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, children who are in conflict with the law have the right to be treated in a way that takes into account their age, dignity and integration into society. In 2007, 12 was considered to be the lowest internationally acceptable minimum age of criminal responsibility. It has been over a decade since this standard was adopted, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is in the process of revising its guidance on juvenile justice to reflect that international standards have changed in favour of a higher minimum age. The Philippines’ current minimum age of 15 reflects modern best practice and is commended by the Committee.
To divert children from pathways into crime and support their development, State authorities should focus on prosecuting those who exploit children, rather than their victims. Addressing the root causes of children’s involvement in criminal behaviour benefits not just children themselves but society as a whole; the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stresses that “the traditional objectives of criminal justice, such as repression/retribution, must give way to rehabilitation and restorative justice objectives in dealing with child offenders.” Expert practitioners from our network have emphasised that setting a higher minimum age of criminal responsibility allows for supportive approaches which improve children’s well-being and build their future potential.
The Consortium for Street Children therefore:
- Urges the Congress of the Philippines to maintain the current minimum age of criminal responsibility of 15;
- Calls upon the Government of the Philippines to prioritise the full implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006;
- Calls for all government ministries, departments and agencies to integrate and apply a rights-based approach in their actions and strategies concerning street children and children in conflict with the law;
- Further recommends that the government facilitates the effective participation of street children and civil society in the development and implementation of plans and strategies concerning children’s rights.
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, ‘General Comment No.21 on Children in Street Situations’ (21 June 2017), para 14, 16 and 44, available here; Human Rights Online Philippines et al, ‘Statement against arbitrary arrest of minors under “Oplan Tambay”’ (4 July 2018), available here.
 You can read about this further in Consortium for Street Children et al, ‘Submission on General Comment No. 24, replacing General Comment No. 10 (2007), on children’s rights in juvenile justice’ (8 January 2019), available here.