The Malta Independent 30 March 2023, Thursday
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TMID Editorial: The responsibility of 16-year-olds

Thursday, 2 February 2023, 09:21 Last update: about 3 months ago

A comment made by a magistrate during a recent court sitting has created some debate, which later also involved the Prime Minister.

The magistrate, Donatella Frendo Dimech, during a sitting in which people younger than 18 were charged with an offence, made the following remark: "So [at age 16] they're good to marry, run for politics, work in business, but then they aren't able to be charged as adults.”


The comment may be interpreted as a suggestion to the legislative arm of our democracy to update the Criminal Code, to enable prosecutors to charge youngsters aged 16 and 17 as adults.

Asked for an opinion on the matter a few days later, the Prime Minister was quick to quash the suggestion. That 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as minors is due to considerations linked with the Charter of the Council of Europe, he said.

He does believe, however, that the court has the necessary tools to jail perpetrators, even if they are considered as minors in the eyes of the law. “If the law finds them guilty and feels it should sentence them to jail time, then the law in its current form is sufficient to allow it to do so,” he said.

It is therefore unlikely that the government will take the magistrate’s suggestion, meaning that the law will remain as it is. But it is pertinent to point out that what the magistrate said does make a lot of a sense, and points to a contradiction in our system.

This is because the magistrate is right to highlight the issue that whereas 16- and 17-year-olds are treated as adults when it comes to voting for their representatives in Parliament and local councils – and they themselves can contest such elections, and possibly also take full responsibility of their locality as mayors if they get the highest number of votes – prosecutors cannot treat them as adults when they are charged with committing an offence.

People aged 16 and 17 are deemed as being adults when it comes to opening a business or getting married (the latter with the consent of their parents), but then they are not considered as adults if they are involved in some crime, whether it is a petty offence or something that is more serious.

The government was full of pride when Malta became only the second European country to grant 16-year-olds the right to vote, first at local council level, and later at national level. The other country that had taken such a step, in 2007, was Austria.

But we have other anomalies in our laws with regard to 16- and 17-year-olds. For example, recently there was a public debate on child marriages, with the Office of the Commissioner for Children insisting that the legal age for marriage should be raised from 16 to 18. Currently, 16-17-year-olds can get married with their parents’ consent.

What the magistrate said in open court should not be dismissed so easily.

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