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Protecting children from cruelty and neglect

Protecting children from cruelty and neglect

MPs are using the second reading of the Serious Crime Bill to call for changes to the Children and Young Person Act 1933. Several MPs have raised concerns that under the Act, only children under the age of 16 are protected from neglect or ill-treatment, with those who are 16- and 17-years-old left vulnerable. The solicitor-general, Robert Buckland QC, has also called for the law to be updated to protect children from emotional cruelty.

“Nonsensical and unacceptable” loophole

In the Serious Crime Bill, MPs are proposing changes to the 1933 Act in order to provide better protection for teenagers aged 16 and 17.

Under the existing criminal law, which is over 80 years old, children are only protected from neglect or ill-treatment until their 16th birthday. However, official figures have shown that in 2014, there were 42,260 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK who social services deemed to be “in need” and therefore at a greater risk of harm or neglect.

Speaking out against the current position, Labour MP Sarah Champion said that it sends out a message that the risk of abuse is lower in older teenagers and therefore that they require less protection. She argued:

“While most English law treats anyone under 18 as a child, the criminal law…protects children from neglect or ill treatment only until their 16th birthday. This makes it much harder to protect 16- and 17-year-olds from cruelty”.

The Children’s Society has also voiced its support for the proposed changes, calling the existing law “unacceptable”. CEO Matthew Reed said that as it stands, the law has a “nonsensical and unacceptable” gap in protection, where the ill-treatment of a child aged 15 could be considered cruelty, but if the victim were 17, the adult wouldn’t necessarily face prosecution.

Home Office Minister Karen Bradley has said she will carefully consider the proposals and the issues raised. However, she asserted that whilst 16- and 17-year-olds presently do not receive protection under the 1933 Act, other criminal offences protect them from harm, such as the laws on assault or those that protect young people from sexual exploitation by those who hold a position of trust. She noted that those over 16 are “generally deemed capable of living independently of their parents, and can, of course, consent to sex”.

The need to clarify an important area of law

Writing for the Times, the solicitor-general, Robert Buckland QC – who is also a part time judge – has explained other important changes that the Serious Crime Bill proposes to introduce. He argues that every child should be able to grow up in a safe environment, which is why it is essential that the law is clarified and updated to ensure that children are adequately protected from emotional cruelty.

Cruelty is behaviour that is likely to result in unnecessary suffering or injury to health – with neglect being one way this may be caused. The recommended changes to s.1 of the 1933 Act would make it absolutely clear that cruelty to children – including non-physical conduct – that is likely to cause injury or psychological suffering is an offence, which could carry a penalty of a maximum of ten years’ imprisonment.

Mr Buckland has explained that the purpose of the changes is not to extend criminal liability, but rather to bring much needed clarity to an important area of law. He asserted that it is essential to make clearer that emotional cruelty is an abhorrent crime that should be punished, although the law would not leave adults facing charges for general unhappiness or upset. He drew upon his own experiences to demonstrate the need for change, citing an example of a family where the children were underweight and malnourished, suffering incontinence and a headlice infestation, with stunted learning and social development.

Mr Buckland admitted that any changes could see an increased number of prosecutions, but added that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and agencies such as social services will develop a better understanding of what constitutes the crime of cruelty to children.

Childcare and family law experts

The law is designed to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable members of society. At IBB Solicitors, we have family law specialists experienced in defending the rights and well being of children, particularly when families disagree over the care of children under the age of 16, or if the local authority becomes involved in a child’s welfare. Our family law solicitors in West London and Buckinghamshire are experienced, compassionate and caring experts who have one aim – to protect the rights of the child.

Our childcare team recognise that cases need to be treated with care and compassion to minimise the distress that can be caused to vulnerable children.

We are members of the Association of Lawyers for Children and several of our team serve on the Law Society’s Children Panel and hold Resolution specialist accreditation.

If your family is undergoing a difficult child custody case, or you need representation for Care and Adoption proceedings, we can help. Contact us in confidence on 01895 207857, or email us at childcare@ibblaw.co.uk