With the school Summer holidays nearly upon us, working parents worrying about the ever increasing cost of childcare might think about leaving their children home alone. But is there a set age at which it is legally allowed to leave your child home alone and is there a maximum amount of time that you should leave them unattended? Christine Rawsthorne, a Solicitor from Sultan Lloyd Solicitors examines what is and what is not allowed under the current law.

Many people think that a child has to be 13 before they can be left alone but that is not the case. In fact, there is no minimum age at which you can leave a child on their own but what the law does say is that you would be committing an offence if you left a child alone and in doing that you placed them at risk of harm. A parent can be prosecuted for neglect if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health”.

A common sense approach needs to be taken to making the decision of whether or not leaving a child alone is placing them at risk of harm. You, as the parent or guardian are best placed to judge the potential risk to your child. The NSPCC has published guidance on their website to assist parents in undertaking a risk assessment. In particular, you should think about:

  • “The age of the child
  • The child’s level of maturity and understanding
  • The place where the child will be left
  • How often and how long the child will be left alone
  • Whether or not there are any other children being left with the child”.

The child’s level of maturity is quite an important point. For example, you might have a 16 year old who only has the maturity and understanding of a 13 year old or you might have a 13 year old who is mature beyond their years and would be perfectly capable of being left alone for a period of time. Whatever you decide, the onus is on you to ensure your child’s safety and wellbeing.

If you are going to leave your child then take sensible precautions. Make sure they have a contact number for you or someone else who is going to be available to take their call. Tell them not to answer the door to strangers and make sure that any hazards are put out of reach. Ensure your child has a sufficient understanding of what to do in an emergency and when you tell them what time you are going to be home then stick to it so the child does not begin to panic. Whilst this might sound like basic advice there has been a prosecution for neglect as recently as June this year.

In that case a mother was given a suspended prison sentence for leaving her primary school age daughter home alone whilst she went out shopping. When someone began banging on the front door the girl, who had been locked in the house and left without keys, became scared and tried to phone her mother who did not answer. The girl panicked and eventually phoned 999 in a distressed state. When police arrived they found needles in the house which could easily have injured the girl. Whilst most people would not dream of leaving their child in the same way as this particular mother did, it does seem as though some parents are not heeding even the most basic of safety messages.

In terms of the period of time that you can leave your child for then again, a common sense approach needs to be adopted. Whilst some people would think it acceptable to leave a mature 13 year old for a short period of time, it would be unacceptable to leave them alone overnight. In another case this year, 8 children between the ages of a few months old and 11 were found to have been left alone in a house. It is not yet known how long they had been left for, the alarm only being raised when a neighbour saw the 3 year old boy walking alone in the rain outside the house wearing nothing but a t-shirt. Another mother from Blackburn was given a 20 week suspended sentence for leaving her 4 young children unattended for 24 hours whilst she went out drinking.

With neglect carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine and the number of prosecutions rising year on year then the advice is simple; unless you are confident that you are not placing your child at risk by leaving them alone then don’t do it.

For advice on this and a range of other Family Law issues contact Christine Rawsthorne at Sultan Lloyd Solicitors on 01212482850 or at [email protected].