Emotional abuse of a child: Cinderella’s Law

There’s been a lot of talk on the TV, radio and in the press over the past couple of days about the introduction of a new criminaloffence to outlaw the emotional abuse of children. 

Because all new laws involving children are now required by the Ministry of Silly Names to have a silly name, this proposed law is called the Cinderella Law.  Presumably because the ugly sisters neglected her and subjected her to regular verbal abuse.

I heard a solicitor, described by the radio presenter as a “children’s lawyer”, on my radio yesterday explaining how we should avoid introducing this law because it would be “impossible to define” and difficult to implement.  With respect, laziness is one of the worst reasons not to do something if it is important enough to need doing. 

In this instance, there is a far better reason for not introducing this Cinderella Law.  I point to section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which already criminalises emotional abuse and child neglect.  It reads:

“(1) If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and [has responsibility for] any child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement), that person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable… to imprisonment for any term not exceeding ten years”

It’s a bit wordy but would this 81-year-old law protect a modern-day Cinderella?  Well, yes it would.  “Ill-treats” sounds old-fashioned to the modern ear but its meaning is easy to decipher.  It’s not a physical assault as that is covered by “wilfully assaults”.  It’s not neglecting, abandoning or exposing a child as they all get their own mentions.  Archbold, the criminal lawyer’s bible, tells us, at 19-386, that to make out an allegation of ill-treatment, “bullying or frightening will suffice”.

How often are cases of ill-treatment prosecuted?  Well I don’t know and I doubt that there are any figures kept for that specific part of s.1(1) of the 1933 Act.  I've certainly acted in such a case where the child accused the parents of, among other things, emotionally abusing him.  In that case, the child told his teacher that his parents would tell him they wished he’d never been born, that he was worthless, that they wished he was dead and that he was not as good a person as his siblings.

So, should we introduce a brand-spanking new law to do exactly what a perfectly good 81-year-old law does?  No, I don’t think we should.


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