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Home Alone - law and cases in the UK and abroad

Justice for Families has been publicly campaigning on the issue of the law in respect of children left at home without parental or other adult supervision. Our biggest concern is that the law is not clear. The government claim that parents are allowed to decide whether their child is mature enough to be left alone. That, however, is not true. What happens is that either the police or local authority social workers decide whether in their opinion the parents have neglected their child.

What is most unfair is when parents are prosecuted or have their children taken off them for something which they have done reasonably and with the best intentions for their child/children.

There is, in fact, no published information about what does happen and when action is taken. Some of the cases are covered by family court secrecy which makes it much harder to review the case. Others have injunctions on the criminal cases which make looking at the case harder. However, here are a few examples:

  1. Dad left a toddler in the car for five minutes whilst getting Calpol. Dad was convicted in the magistrates court, but this decision was reversed on appeal.
  2. Mum, who was a working single mother, left the house before the babysitter arrived. The babysitter was delayed and turned up after the landlord had called the police. The toddler had filled her nappy and had a nappy rash. Mum was cautioned by the police and her baby was forcibly adopted into another family. The local authority had recently increased their adoption targets.
  3. Dad left his 8 and 6 year olds at home whilst he went to the bank. The children were tired and did not want to go to the bank. The police knocked on the door searching for evidence as to a the murder of Mohammed Saleem and the children admitted to being home alone. The children were taken into care and dad was banned from caring for them.
  4. Mum and her partner went on holiday leaving another adult to look after the 12 year old. The other adult did not sleep in the same house as the 12 year old. The teachers called the police who prosecuted mum and her partner, but they were found not guilty.

The only published guidance in England is from the NSPCC here. Personally I think it is over the top to say that a child must be 12 before you can go to the shops without the child. Particularly in an era with mobile phones and other communication systems it should not be necessary for a child to be dragged out of the house because of state edict.

It appears to me that the police and social workers are following the NSPCC guidance when it has no statutory basis. There are places where this guidance is the law, however.
Addendum 14/03/16 - The NSPCC spokesperson has just said (on the Radio) that leaving an average 10 year old whilst going to the shops for an hour should be OK.

What the UK Needs

  1. Firstly, we need to tell people what is happening and this needs to be discussed publicly. There is no collated information as to what decisions police and social workers are taking.
  2. Secondly, we need to have a public debate about what the risks are and what more detailed and whether more flexible guidance is needed than that from the NSPCC. Many other countries such as Germany allow younger children to be regularly home alone. What about when the parents have a mobile phone and there is a 9 year old left at home able to speak to their parents whilst they go to the shops?
  3. Thirdly, we need to consider what is optimal, what is ill advised and what should be criminal or require action from the local authority.
  4. Finally, we need to be more supportive of parents who generally try to do what is best for their children. The judgment of parents should be treated with some respect.

The situation in other countries

This is a particularly useful document from the US Government which summarises the situation in the USA. It includes: " Only three States currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone. Illinois law requires children to be 14 years old before being left alone; in Maryland, the minimum age is 8, while in Oregon, children must be 10 before being left home alone." This is an interesting court case in Canada where the courts decided to change the law such that children had to be 10 before being regularly left at home alone.
This is from Australia. Germany and Switzerland seem to be quite tolerant of children left home alone during the day from about 7.

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R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY [1924] 1 KB 256

I have only just found this one which I think is accurately reported below (but if it is not please give me an accurate report).

KING’S BENCH DIVISION

R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY [1924] 1 KB 256

November 9 1923

Editor’s comments in bold.

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LORD HEWART CJ:
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