Tougher punishments for abusive or neglectful parents who try to shift the blame for their crimes have been recommended in proposed guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council.
The draft guidelines for courts to follow when handling child cruelty cases specify for the first time that seeking to blame others for an offence should be considered an aggravating factor, in an attempt to ensure parents or guardians are held to account if they try to avoid responsibility.
The guidelines, which cover England and Wales and will be subject to a public consultation, 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).
They relate to a wide range of offending that comes before the courts, from incompetent parenting to deliberate abuse. Offences could include parents or guardians leaving children home alone or in unsanitary 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.
Mrs Justice Maura McGowan, a member of the Sentencing Council, 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 people were sentenced for the offence of cruelty to a child, with approximately 42% of cases dealt with in magistrates courts and 58% in crown courts.
For the first time the proposed guidelines for this offence would take into account “developmental harm” to victims. This could be identified by delays in reaching milestones, such as crawling, standing or talking, or lack of progress at school.
The offence of causing or allowing the death or serious physical harm of a vulnerable adult or child was introduced to cover cases where a child has died or been badly hurt but there is insufficient evidence to prove who committed the act.
“In such cases, before the introduction of this legislation, neither defendant could be found guilty of murder, manslaughter or assault and so nobody would be held accountable. The guideline reflects the aims of the legislation, including, for example, the aggravating factor of an offender blaming others for the offence,” the council said.
“This offence can also be used in its own right: for example if someone in the household is charged with the murder or manslaughter of a child, another member may be convicted of causing/allowing death, if it can be proved that they foresaw or should have foreseen that their co-defendant would commit an unlawful act which risked serious physical harm to the child.”
In 2016, six people were sentenced for causing or allowing death, and 23 for causing or allowing serious physical harm. There are no figures differentiating between cases involving children and vulnerable adults.
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.
The council said it was keen to provide a clear approach to ensure appropriate and consistent sentencing.
“The guideline takes into account the psychological impact these offences can have on victims and acknowledges that, by their very nature, all offences of FGM carry an inherent level of harm.”
There have been no convictions under laws relating to FGM, despite estimates suggesting the practice has affected tens of thousands of women and girls in England and Wales.