Something bizarre is going on with criminal law in Queensland. The State Government, with virtually no public discussion, has unexpectedly announced a plan to jail parents who leave their children alone while they go to casinos or pubs.
The plan, announced by State Premier Anna Bligh in April, took everyone by surprise. The response the Premier got may not be the one she hoped for. Criminal defence lawyers, and the general public, have greeted the idea with bewilderment and some alarm.
Queensland intends to change the state’s Criminal Code and make parents, who leave children under 12 alone for an unspecified “unreasonable period of time” while they go to casinos or pubs, liable for a jail term of up to three years.
As a criminal defence lawyer and as a parent, I deplore the plan, which is a draconian move that will cause more problems than it resolves.
Quite apart from the bizarre way of going about it, the move is appalling because the Queensland government wants to use imprisonment as a first line measure to deal with a perceived problem of errant parents.
The whole thing seems like a knee jerk reaction. A statistic cited in reports stated 28 children were abandoned at Jupiter’s Casino in 2007 and from that moment forward things have evolved in apparent secrecy.
I am not aware of any particular research into the problem of parents abandoning their children while they go to casinos or pubs. Obviously, it happens. How widespread the problem may be, nobody seems to know. The state government offered no research to back up its decision and the media did not pursue the key question - why do we need this draconian law change?
At present parents who abandon their children to go gambling or drinking do not face serious penalties unless the child is injured.
Under the proposed change to Queensland’s Criminal Code, a new offence will be created for parents who leave their children alone for “an unreasonable period of time” while the parents are at casinos and shopping centres.
Shopping centres too? So it will be an offence in Queensland to leave your 11-year-old alone at a shopping centre?
Premier Anna Bligh said "Cabinet has resolved to have new laws that will see parents liable for up to three years jail where they abandon their children in places like casinos or shopping centres, or where they leave them at home for unreasonable lengths of time, whether or not the child comes to any harm."
Police will have to use "commonsense, man in the street" judgments on what constitutes children being left for an unreasonable amount of time, Ms Bligh said.
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