Tougher punishments proposed for blaming others in child cruelty cases

Updated: 
child victim of maltreatment family

Abusive or neglectful parents could face tougher punishments if they try to shift the blame for their crimes under new sentencing proposals.

Draft guidelines for courts to follow when handling child cruelty cases specify for the first time that blaming others for an offence should be considered as an "aggravating factor".

The proposal aims to ensure mothers, fathers or guardians are held to account if they attempt to shirk responsibility by pointing the finger at others.

It follows analysis of court transcripts which found cases frequently involve one parent or carer seeking to blame the other for what happened in order to avoid prosecution.

The new aggravating feature is included in proposed guidelines being published by the Sentencing Council on Tuesday.

They cover three offences - cruelty to a child, causing or allowing a child to die or suffer serious physical harm, and failing to protect a girl from the risk of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The guidelines relate to a wide range of offending that comes before courts, from incompetent parenting to deliberate abuse.

It could include parents or guardians leaving children home alone or in insanitary conditions, putting them at risk through alcohol or drug abuse, or subjecting them to sustained and deliberate ill-treatment and violence that leads to serious injury or death.

Sentencing Council member Mrs Justice Maura McGowan said: "These offences are committed against particularly vulnerable victims - children - and so we want to ensure that sentencing properly reflects the harm they have suffered.

"Offences vary greatly - some offenders may be guilty of a one-off lapse of care which puts their child at risk of harm, while others may have inflicted a campaign of deliberate cruelty.

"The proposed guidelines set out a clear approach to deal with such a range of offending and ensures that cases involving significant force, a weapon or multiple incidents of cruelty are always treated as being in the highest category of culpability."

Last year 623 offenders were sentenced for the offence of cruelty to a child, with approximately 42% dealt with in magistrates' courts and 58% in Crown Courts.

For the first time the proposed guidelines for this offence take into account "developmental harm" to victims.

This could be seen through milestones that a child has not met, such as standing, talking, crawling or progress at school.

The draft document contains guidance for sentencing those convicted of causing or allowing the death or serious physical harm of a vulnerable adult or child.

These offences were introduced to cover prosecutions when a child has died or been badly hurt, but where there is insufficient evidence to prove who committed the act.

In the Baby P case, three defendants including the child's mother were jailed in 2009 for causing or allowing his death.

In 2016, six offenders were sentenced for causing or allowing death, and 23 for causing or allowing serious physical harm - although it is not possible to differentiate between cases involving child or vulnerable adult victims.

For the offence of failing to protect a girl under 16 from the risk of FGM, the guideline advises courts to consider the level of harm caused to victims.

It says: "For all cases of failing to protect a girl from the risk of female genital mutilation there will be serious physical and psychological harm (likely both immediately and long-term) but there are factors that may increase it further."

There have been no convictions under laws relating to the practice, despite estimates suggesting it has affected tens of thousands of women and girls in England and Wales.

Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate feels it is not in the interests of justice to do so.

The draft guidelines, which cover England and Wales, will now be subject to a public consultation.

The Ministry of Justice welcomed the proposed guidelines.

A spokesman said: "Child cruelty is abhorrent and the impact on victims can be immeasurable. Those who harm children should feel the full force of the law."