James Bulger Trial

On February 1993 2 year old Jamie Bulger was abducted from New Strand Shopping Centre, in Bootle by two 10 year old boys John and Robert, who spent some time walking across Liverpool abusing the child, pushing him and dropping him on his head, before physically and sexually assaulting him and disposing of his body on a railway track.

The full trial opened at Preston Crown Court on 1 November 1993 as the boys’ secure units were located nearby. The trial was conducted as an adult trial with the accused in a dock away from their parents on a raised platform which the ECHR later criticised in 1999 for giving way to an unfair trial.

The two boys were found guilty of the murder of Jamie Bulger, becoming the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century. They were ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the normal substitute sentence for life imprisonment when the offender is juvenile.

By July 1994 the eight year sentence tariff set by the trial judge had been increased to 10 years by Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor before being increased again to 15 years by Home Secretary Michael Howard. However, the Law Lords ruled by majority that Howard had acted illegally in doing so. The ECHR then found that Thompson and Venables were denied a fair trial and fair sentencing by impartial and independent tribunal.

The age of criminal responsibility was put under scrutiny during the trial, as it had to be determined what age a child could be assumed to know the severity and consequence of their actions. At the time, children aged between 10 and 14 could be tried for criminal behaviour in the UK under the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, provided the prosecution could prove they were aware of the nature of their act and that it was seriously wrong. In the Bulger case, prosecutors successfully did this, allowing Venables and Thompson to be tried as adults. 5 years later, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished the presumption that children under 14 didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, leaving the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales as 10- one of the lowest in the western world.


We would particularly welcome blog posts on the effect of the reduced age of criminal responsibility after the Bulger trial, with particular reference to the Edlington brothers, who were convicted more than a decade later. We also welcome discussions on whether the age is too low, what effect it may have, and what reforms should perhaps be introduced, as well as any further information on the case.

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