Is Cinderella going to have her day in court?

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There has been rising tide of activists, politicians and charitable bodies whom strongly believe that there is a fundamental failure in this country’s social care and legal system to protect the young victims of emotional abuse. The new Cinderella law, mentioned in the Queen’s Speech last year, was hailed an important step forward in rectifying this failure.

The rights of the child against abuse were first enshrined as part of The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868 which criminalised the ‘wilful neglect’ of a child. It defined this broadly in terms of that which was physically injurious to life or health. It reportedly stemmed from an incident involving two religiously devout parents that rejected medical treatment for their critically ill son (the inspiration for this abhorrent course of action was their membership of a sect of Methodism called the Peculiar People). This was replaced in 1933 with ‘The Children and Young Persons Act’ which redefined the term ‘wilful neglect’ to incorporate the broader offence of unnecessary suffering. Proponents of the new law argue that the 1933 law makes two important stipulations for any act to be considered criminal, namely that it has to be ‘wilful’ and ‘physical’ in nature, and in the process excludes a whole range of emotional offences that are equally iniquitous. Some of the pertinent wording includes:

’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).’’

From a cursory glance it appears as if the act does in fact make provision for a psychological or emotional component to an offence. It seems reasonable that the terms “mental derangement” and “ill treatment” might be interpreted to encompass non-physical harm. The 1981 Sheppard ruling, however, equivocated over the lack of clarity surrounding the term ‘wilful’, eventually determining that the word had to apply to both the understanding of the potential consequences and the decision to go ahead and take the risk by acting in a particular way. This effectively meant that if it could not be established that the consequences of emotional neglect (i.e. not showing enough love) or the long term effect of saying hurtful and demeaning things were not foreseen (perhaps due to diminished mental capacity) then it could not be applied. Establishing such a nexus of cause and effect proves difficult in most contexts and many saw the ruling as effectively restricting the offence to children’s physical rather than emotional needs. This has been the law for children under 16 ever since. This is unsurprisingly disputed by government who contend that there is room in the act for a psychological or emotional abuse but concede that the wording may be in need of greater clarification.

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