In 2008, the Queensland Parliament passed a new law which impacted directly on parents with young children. It is now a criminal offence, under section 364A of the Queensland Criminal Code (the Code), to leave a child under 12 years of age unsupervised for an unreasonable time. This offence carries a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment. But what is a reasonable time to leave your children alone?
The Code does not provide a great deal of guidance on what is reasonable or unreasonable. It merely states that it depends on all the relevant circumstances. This has unfortunately left parents confused as to where they stand: is it ok to leave children in the car while you pay for petrol, or buy a single item at the grocery store?
Why was this law introduced in Queensland and what is the situation in other States?
The law was passed in direct response to public concern over cases of child abandonment, including children being left at casinos without food and supervision while parents gambled, and young children being left in cars.
No other State or Territory in Australia has a law which specifically addresses the age at which a child cannot be left alone for an unreasonable time. All parents are expected to provide food, clothing, safety and supervision, and will be charged if their children have been left in a dangerous situation.
How has the law been dealt with by the Courts in Queensland?
Since its introduction, a number of cases have come before the Court. One case involved three children (aged 10, 5 and 3) being left in a locked car for ten minutes. The car was parked in an undercover car park with the air conditioning and motor running. A penalty was not imposed, although the Judge deemed the responsibility on the 10 year old to have been great if something had gone wrong.
It is a similar situation for cases involving children being left alone at home. One case resulted in imprisonment where a child under 12 had been left unattended at home over a four day period.
Many factors are taken into account in determining reasonableness, such as the potential for harm and whether the child is capable of making a decision in an emergency. It is clear that even a very short period of time can be unreasonable depending on the circumstances.
The Queensland Road Rules provides guidance on your legal obligations when leaving a motor vehicle. When the driver is leaving the motor vehicle, the engine must be switched off. If the driver is going to be more than three metres from the car, the ignition key must also be removed if anyone remaining in the car is under 16 years of age.
The Queensland Government also provides a guidance sheet on leaving your child at home. This can be found at http://deta.qld.gov.au/earlychildhood/pdfs/tip-sheets/pts-home-alone.pdf
This article reflected the state of the law at the time of publication. But the law is a living creation which is constantly changing and adapting. These articles should be treated as an information resource only and not as a substitute for specific legal advice in respect to your particular problems and circumstances.
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