Abuse Solicitor, Nicki Cozens, Reports on the Proposed New Criminal Offence of Emotional Cruelty to Children

The Government is considering whether to introduce a new criminal offence of emotional cruelty to children.  Neglect is currently the most prevalent form of child abuse in the United Kingdom.  The proposed change comes about following calls for reform from Action for Children. 

The Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 currently provides for the criminal punishment of a person who treats a child ‘in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.  If the Bill is passed it would become a criminal offence for parents and carers to harm a child’s ‘physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development’.  This is expected to encompass all forms of child abuse extending to a lack of love, children who witness parental/carer violence, children being isolated, belittled, rejected or corrupted by their carers. 

At the present time criminal neglect only covers positive physical  acts against children and extends only to wilful neglect.  It does not currently embrace the emotional abuse of children.  The police have also experienced difficulties in securing convictions where the neglect of children has been by omission.  This has resulted in unsuccessful prosecutions as juries often fail to convict perpetrators because of a failure to act as they are unable to consider the parental actions as ‘wilful’. 

Another incentive for changing the law is to bring it into line with childcare law, where the Children Act 1989 defines neglect as ‘the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical/psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of a child’s health or development’. 

Our understanding of the harm caused by childhood neglect has developed significantly, especially in regard to emotional neglect and the non-physical consequences of neglect.  Children who are emotionally deprived have been shown to be more likely to develop mental health problems, have poor social and relationship skills and become involved in the criminal justice system. 

The campaign has received some high profile support including Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams (who introduced a Private Members Bill on this issue last year) and Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former judge who presided over the Family Division of the High Court. 

The new offence proposed would allow the prosecution of those who neglect their children, both physically and psychologically, and allow joined up multi-agency working to safeguard children for police officers, social workers, health professionals and the general public.  It would also alert the general public to the fact that emotional neglect is harmful, serious and deserves the same recognition as physical abuse.  It would not penalise vulnerable parents who may not be able to recognise that their actions could be considered ‘reckless’. 

Opponents of the Bill argue that this is ‘emotional correctness gone mad’. They believe that emotional abuse and its definition is an area that is ‘wholly unsuitable for legal regulation and the policing of parents [ Frank Furedi – Author of ‘Paranoid Parenting ].

Nicki Cozens is an abuse solicitor in Slee Blackwell’s specialist child abuse compensation team. If you are affected by any of the issues in this report and would like to speak to Nicki then please call her on 0800 139 1597 or email us at info@abusecompensation.co.uk

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