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Rights of Children Accused of Crimes

Dec 22, 2016, 10:30 AM

Is there a risk that a child might falsely confess to a crime while talking to police? Does the law reflect this risk? This article will discuss the rights of children accused of crimes, and when what they say may be used as evidence against them.

When a school is broken into, a boy hanging around in the area is picked up by police. When questioned, he confesses to the crime. But did he do it? Confessions are often solid evidence, but may sometimes be unreliable. There are a number of reasons why a suspect who is innocent may confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. For example, if they think they may get a lighter sentence, don’t understand the nature of the charges against them, or are subject to undue pressure from authorities who believe they are guilty.

These reasons are amplified when the criminal justice system is dealing with child offenders, as a child may have less ability to fully understand the situation in which they find themselves. There may be language barriers, and they may not understand that their words may be used as evidence against them later. As such, it is important that children entering the criminal justice system, and the people around them, are aware of the rights they have, and safeguards that are in place to prevent innocent children being convicted if they have falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit.

The Gambian juvenile criminal justice system has in place safeguards to prevent unreliable confessions from being admitted as evidence. Section 208 of the Children’s Act 2005 sets out specific rights in place to protect suspects in the criminal process. Most important of these, in subsection b), is the right to remain silent. This right protects freedom from pressure to give a statement, and means that juveniles accused of crimes can ensure that they take time to consult with parents or legal representation, to ensure they fully understand what they might be confessing.

This is supported by the right, in subsection d) of the same act, to the presence of a parent or guardian during all questioning. This, in combination with the right to silence, allows juveniles the proper time to consider the statements they make to police, to prevent carelessly confessing to a crime which they do not intend to do so. These rights are supported by duties on police in Section 210 of the same act, minimising questioning between police and a child except with the presence of a parent/guardian.

The Sections in the Children’s Act aim to keep procedure in the best interests of the child, and to minimise the potential for self-incriminating evidence to be unduly given. Evidence which is presented in contravention of these sections will not be admissible under the Rules of the Children’s Court, providing an additional safeguard for suspects and influencing police practice.

Parents and children should still be aware of their rights when accused of crimes. Although cooperating fully with the process may be in their best interests, this freedom not to make a statement without legal representation, or at least the presence of a parent/guardian can prevent false confessions being made. Despite the other safeguards, exercise of this right is part of fair criminal process in the Gambia.

Christopher Gray

LLM International Law

Visiting Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UTG

Honorary Lecturer, University of Bristol Law School

The Gambia/United Kingdom