It is widely expected that changes to the child neglect laws will make “emotional cruelty” a crime for the first time.
Parents found guilty following the law change could face up to 10 years in prison. It is anticipated that these changes will be announced in the Queen’s Speech in June.
The new offence would make it a crime to do anything that deliberately harmed a child’s “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”. This could include deliberately ignoring a child or not showing them any love over prolonged periods, thus damaging a child’s emotional development.
Since 2012, the leading charity “Action for Children” has been campaigning to reform our criminal law on child neglect working with a cross party selection of MPs and Peers. Robert Buckland MP has supported their campaign based upon his own experiences as a criminal barrister.
Historically, the government has repeatedly stated that there was no need to change the law despite attempts to amend it by MPs and others. Most recently, Baroness Butler-Sloss who chaired the Cleveland Enquiry, a Judge and former President of the Family Courts, supported an earlier change proposed by Action for Children. The Baroness commented in her foreword to the analysis and proposal for reform: “Sadly there are some cases of child neglect which require victims to be protected by the criminal law. In this regard, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is unfit for purpose …. The current law explicitly fails to recognise the full degree of harm done to neglected children…”. Sadly Baroness Butler Sloss failed in her attempt to introduce legislation via the House of Lords.
The highly respected labour MP, Paul Goggins, who died in January 2014, started his campaign to amend the law in February 2013.
He said when this issue was debated in the House of Commons in 2013:
“There is a need to modernise and update the legislation on child neglect …the current law was set in statute in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 but that legislation was based on an Act from 1868. If we are still applying in 2013 definitions that applied in 1868 with all we now know about child neglect, it may suggest that the definition has stood the test of time, but we should at least examine it”. Mr Goggins went on to say: “… there seems to be a growing disparity between the civil and criminal definitions of child neglect. That is leading to serious difficulties”.
A report by an expert panel that Action for Children brought together stated: “The main concern raised by social workers was that the current offence limits the extent to which the Police are able to respond in cases of non-physical neglect. They reported that Police generally only intervene when there is tangible physical evidence”.
As many as 1.5 million British children are believed to suffer from neglect. The legal changes would allow Police to intervene earlier and build a criminal case before children are physically or sexually abused.
Mr Buckland stated: “We need a clear, concise and workable definition of child maltreatment – an alternative code that reflects the range of harm done to children and which provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases. Emotional neglect must be outlawed, the term ‘wilful’ should be replaced and the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart”.
Margaret Hatwood family law partner at Anthony Gold says:
“I support the proposed change in law. However I dislike the term “Cinderella Law” that has been applied. It is not just the term that is being used. Some commentators are using this opportunity to criticise the care offered by step parents who in many cases provide highly valuable support to parents.”