Papa Don’t Breach: Parental Liability under the Coronavirus Regulations
The new Coronavirus legislation is only a week old and already there is public discussion over the tactics used by the police to enforce it (notable perhaps was former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption expressing concern that we are sliding into “a police state”).
Police accounts on Twitter are providing much of the fuel for this fire. One particular tweet by Warrington Police on 27th March attracted praise and criticism in equal measure, stating: “We have attended reports of a group of youths coughing at NHS staff stating they have Coronavirus. The youths will be prosecuted as will their parents. Parents/persons with PR [parental responsibility] make sure your children STAY INSIDE. You too can and will be prosecuted if you fail to do so”.
Coughing on NHS staff whilst claiming to have Coronavirus would likely amount to Assaulting an Emergency Worker, provided the “youths” were at least 10 years’ old and therefore over the age of criminal responsibility. However, whether prosecution of a child or young person is in the public interest will always depend on the individual circumstances of each case.
Insofar as the tweet might suggest to the reader that the parents could also be prosecuted for any assault committed by the youths, it is misleading. The criminal law doesn’t hold parents responsible for their children’s actions (although there are exceptions to this, such as school attendance). Assuming (reasonably, I think) that the parents took no part in the coughing incident themselves, did not assist or encourage their children in it, or conspire with their children to do it, then they do not commit any criminal offence by virtue of their children’s misbehaviour.
The more interesting suggestion (and no doubt the one intended) is that parents could be prosecuted for failing to keep their children inside, because that is (partially) correct under the new Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.
The restrictions on leaving home under the Regulations are well summarised by Tom Parker here. In short, individuals can no longer leave their homes without reasonable excuse and, if they do, they commit a criminal offence. The Regulations can be enforced by a constable or police community support officer (PCSO) directing an individual to go home or “removing” the individual to their home. It is a criminal offence to contravene such a direction, or to obstruct an officer while they are carrying out these functions.
Parental liability arises from a specific set of rules within Regulation 8(5)-(6):
- Where a child is outside of their home without reasonable excuse, and is with an adult who has responsibility for them:
o A constable or PCSO can direct the adult to take the child home; and
o The adult must (so far as reasonably practicable) ensure that the child complies with any direction or instruction given by the officer to the child.
- Where the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that a child is repeatedly failing to comply with the rules on staying home, the person can direct an adult with responsibility for that child to secure (so far as reasonably practicable) that the child complies with that restriction.
If the adult with responsibility (either parental responsibility or temporary charge of the child) fails to comply with these rules, they will commit an offence.
A parent does not, therefore, commit an offence simply by failing to keep their child inside. Firstly, the child has to be outside without a reasonable excuse. Secondly, the child or parent must have been issued with a relevant direction or instruction by an officer. Thirdly, the parent must have failed to comply with the direction, or failed to ensure that their child complies. Only then should the parent be prosecuted.
The new Regulations are undoubtedly “confusing” and “frustrating”, and police efforts to warn the public of the consequences of breaching them are laudable. However, the risk of unintentionally spreading misinformation is high, and police Twitter accounts in particular should take care to ensure that the message sent is an accurate one.
Catherine Rose’s practice encompasses crime, extradition, consumer and trading standards work. She has experience beyond her call prosecuting and defending in the Crown Court and has conducted jury trials involving offences of violence, weapons, drugs and driving. Catherine has acted in numerous consumer and trading standards prosecutions using secondary legislation and local authority powers. She has a particular interest in the intersection of human rights and criminal law and has experience making rights-based submissions in the context of public order and extradition cases.
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