Monday, July 15, 2024
HomeNewsJill Kirby: Criminalising emotional abuse - a discretion too far

Jill Kirby: Criminalising emotional abuse – a discretion too far


One of the many regrettable consequences of imposing a 5-year fixed term for parliament is that bad laws are made.

Policies laid out in the 2010 coalition agreement have by now been passed into law or abandoned.

As politicians abhor a vacuum, however, the forthcoming Queen’s Speech is to be padded out with unnecessary and misguided legislation.

Hence the announcement of prospective new law to criminalise “emotional abuse” of children, promoted by Conservative back-bencher and criminal law barrister Robert Buckland.

Concerned that not enough parents are being successfully prosecuted for neglecting their children, Buckland and a number of other MPs and peers have been persuaded that current definitions of harm in criminal law must be expanded.

They believe that juries are unable to grasp the meaning of the 1933 Children and Young Person’s Act, which regulates neglect punishable under criminal law (as opposed to civil law proceedings used, for example, to remove a child from parental care).

This law stipulates that neglect must be “wilful”, a word that the campaigners for change believe is archaic and should be replaced with “reckless.”

They also consider that the 1933 law is simply not wide enough, and should explicitly include “emotional abuse” and harm to “emotional, social and behavioural development.”

But this is a slippery path, where opinion can all too easily replace objective judgement.

Evidence of such abuse is extremely difficult to pin down, and resultant harm very difficult to measure and attribute.

Miscarriage of justice has occurred often enough in cases of alleged physical harm, with children wrongfully removed from their families; how much greater the likelihood of mischief in cases where the harm has no visible manifestation?

Think too of the possible uses to which such law might be put: parents with strong moral convictions, who object to their children being issued with sex advice or contraceptives; those who are home schooling their children, or perhaps banning access to TV and mobile phones.

It’s easy to imagine the case being made against “repressive” parenting, sparked by a complaint from by a disaffected teenager or disgruntled neighbour.

Parents seeking to bring up their children according to religious teaching might find themselves on the wrong side of the law; bear in mind that Richard Dawkins has more than once been applauded for describing such religious teaching as “child abuse.”

What appears to be bothering Robert Buckland, and indeed the “7 out of 10” police officers in a sample of 200 surveyed, is that the police feel unable to intervene in a home where they think a child is being harmed but can find no physical evidence.

Wanting to align this offence with the definition of domestic violence, which was itself expanded in 2012 to cover emotional abuse, they argue that this would enable the police to convince neglectful parents to think about the consequences of their actions.

Given the current reputation of our police for moral probity and character judgement, does anyone seriously think they should be given wider discretion in such matters?

Emotional neglect of children is serious and certainly widespread, often the consequence of adults refusing to put their child’s needs ahead of their own.

The preoccupation of parents with their own dysfunctional or failing relationships, or drug or alcohol addiction, and  failure to comprehend the commitment needed to raise a child, means that far too many children struggle to get the attention they need in order to thrive.

But are we really confident that the police will know how to spot genuine emotional neglect and to respond correctly?

Rather than increase the number of convictions for parental neglect, isn’t it more likely that juries will become even more sceptical when presented with police evidence of “emotional” abuse and impaired “social development”?

Crucially, instead of expanding the law to ever more abstract concepts in the hope of gaining convictions, would it not be better to ensure that all the children currently experiencing physical abuse and neglect are removed from their abusers?

On the same day that the Telegraph announced the new “Cinderella” law, it reported that social workers are unable to cope with the flood of child abuse  cases now being reported, and are obliged to focus only on the worst of these.

Even worse, presumably, than the detached retina, broken bones and fatal brain injury inflicted on 11 month old Callum Wilson by his mother, despite being under social workers’ supervision.

Until we can have confidence that the police are responding effectively to reports of children being beaten, starved, raped, drugged or prostituted, then we should not seek to create new and more subjective offences.


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Jill Kirby
Jill Kirby
Jill Kirby is a freelance writer, commentator and policy analyst specialising in social policy

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