The utility and futility of international standards for children in conflict with the law

The case of England

Authored by: Kathryn Hollingsworth

The Routledge International Handbook of Criminology and Human Rights

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138931176
eBook ISBN: 9781315679891
Adobe ISBN: 9781317395553


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Over the past 30 years, international instruments have emerged across a number of legal regimes that impose on states binding and non-binding obligations relating to children in conflict with the law (Hespel et al. 2012). The rights-based standards contained in these measures cover all elements of youth justice from prevention to detention. Using England as an example, this chapter examines the utility and futility of international standards in affecting change in domestic youth justice systems and in providing legally enforceable remedies. I focus on two legal regimes: the United Nations (UN) and the Council of Europe (CoE). 2 Considered individually, neither system provides the perfect vehicle for securing the rights of children in conflict with the law. The UN has detailed, comprehensive and child-specific standards but an historically weak method of enforcement; the CoE has the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to which individuals can bring complaints for breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), but this is a general rights treaty the substantive content of which is not tailored to children’s interests. 3 Both regimes have, however, recently sought to address their respective weaknesses: at the UN level, a system of individual complaint was adopted in 2014 (the Third Optional Protocol, or ‘OP3’); and in 2010, the CoE published child-friendly justice guidelines. This chapter considers both of these developments but the primary focus is on what Kilkelly (2001) has described as the ‘best of both worlds’: the use of UN standards to interpret the ECHR in order to secure legally enforceable children’s rights.

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