Are Parents Obliged to Control Unruly Children? High Court Test Case
To say that parents bear a moral responsibility to ensure that their children behave themselves in public is uncontroversial – but are they also under a legal duty to do so? The High Court addressed that issue in ruling that the sins of an allegedly anti-social teenager could not be visited upon his mother.
A local authority claimed that the 15-year-old boy had engaged in various forms of anti-social behaviour, including assaulting another schoolboy and setting fire to a public bench, which resulted in a detrimental effect on the quality of life of others living in the same area. The council responded by serving a Community Protection Notice (CPN) on his mother. On pain of criminal prosecution, the notice required her to take various steps to bring her son's behaviour under control.
In subsequently upholding the mother's appeal against the CPN, magistrates observed that the notice could not validly have been issued against her son because he was under the age of 16. They found that, on a true construction of Section 43 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, there is no power to issue a CPN in the name of one individual concerning the conduct of another.
Challenging that ruling, the council argued that a parent can ordinarily be expected to exert a measure of control or restraint on his or her child. However, in rejecting the appeal, the Court found that, on a straightforward reading of Section 43, Parliament's intention was that CPNs should be served on individual perpetrators of anti-social behaviour with a view to getting such persons to desist, ultimately on pain of a criminal sanction.
The real target of the CPN was the son's behaviour, not his mother's failure to keep him under control. If the council's interpretation of Section 43 were correct, schoolteachers, scout leaders or even local authorities with responsibility for children could be served with CPNs if their charges behaved anti-socially.
The power to issue CPNs was subject to various checks and balances, including the requirement that they can only be served on individuals aged 16 or over. Parliament had been astute to ensure that the power did not interfere disproportionately with family life. Had it intended to empower local authorities to issue a CPN against a parent who fails to control the anti-social behaviour of a child aged under 16, it would have said so.