Reckless culpability and the innocence of youth cross swords in a case that both rewrote the powers of legislation and allowed subjective reasoning to prevail, when two young boys aged eleven and twelve spent the night outside before playing in the rear storage yard of a Co-operative store.
What began as tomfoolery with matches and newspaper, wound up as criminal damage and arson totalling over £1m in damages, however with equal consideration of English criminal law and precedent relating to the facts, it also became a matter destined to reach the House of Lords.
Having decided to camp out underneath the stars, the two appellants trespassed into the refuse area of the store and began reading discarded newspapers, after which they set alight to a bundle of newspapers before placing them beneath a large plastic dustbin. Without staying to watch the flames extinguish, the defendants later left the yard and presumably returned home.
Unfortunately as is the nature of fire, the flames ignited the bin, which subsequently ignited the adjacent bin until the fire spread to the roof and beyond, and so when first heard at trial the judge rightly relied upon the exacting terms of s.1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which reads that:
“A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.”
While the term ‘reckless’ remains subjectively difficult to ascertain, the application of this measure failed to discriminate between the range of comprehension created through age, disability, or intelligence. This absence of evaluation forced the jury to determine the boys’ guilt on the objective reasoning of an adult, as established in R v Caldwell and earlier in R v Cunningham (albeit a case more reliant upon maliciousness than ignorance).
In Caldwell the defendant had been intoxicated prior to choosing to set fire to his employer’s hotel, thereby putting the guests and staff in great danger while noting that he had paid little mind to the consequences when starting the fire, while it was this case that led to an objective reasoning test that whilst applicable to most mature adults, offered little consideration for children or vulnerable adults in similar circumstances.
Having deliberated on the certainty of a fair conviction, the judge and jury were left finding guilt, although not without concern for the limitations of the 1971 Act, and so with their challenge dismissed by the Court of Appeal, the appellants were granted leave to present to the House of Lords, where greater attention was placed upon the disparity of the Criminal Law Act 2003 and art.40(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Public hearings and access to documents), which expressed that:
“States parties recognise the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognised as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child’s respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child’s age and the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.”
It was then with appreciation of the narrowness that recklessness previously enjoyed, that the House examined the relevance of continuing to broaden the scope of reckless behaviour, so as to avoid the need for deliberate and considered forethought to the mindset of those accused.
Upon revisitation of the case history preceding the Criminal Damage Act 1971, it became clear that overlooking the objective test had prevented fair and reasoned judgment, and that this particular case was the perfect vehicle upon which to amend that error, thus the House (by majority) declared the boys’ innocence and upheld the appeal, while clarifying that:
“[I]f the law is to operate with the concept of recklessness, then it may properly treat as reckless the man who acts without even troubling to give his mind to a risk that would have been obvious to him if he had thought about it.”