‘Condemn a Little More, Understand a Little Less’: The Political Context and Rights’ Implications of the Domestic and European Rulings in the Venables-Thompson Case
In 1993 Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were found guilty of the abduction and murder of two-year-old James Bulger. Aged ten at the time of the offence, the children were tried in an adult court before a judge and jury amidst a blaze of publicity. They were named by the trial judge and sentenced to detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure [HMp]. The Home Secretary set a minimum tariff of fifteen years imprisonment. In December 1999 the European Court of Human Rights held that, in the conduct of the trial and the fixing of the tariff, the United Kingdom government was responsible for violating the European Convention on Human Rights. This article maps how the case became a watershed in youth justice procedure and practice influencing Labour’s proposals for reform and the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. Examining the progression of appeals through the domestic and European courts, it explores the dichotomous philosophies separating the United Kingdom and European approaches to the age of criminal responsibility, the prosecution and punishment of children, and the influence of political policy on judicial decisions. Finally, the ‘backlash’ against ‘threatening children’, the affirmation of adult power and knowledge, and the implications of the European judgments in the context of a rights-based agenda are analysed.
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