On 11 May 2015, The Mirror reported the sad story of a 17-year-old mother and the injuries caused to her young child.
As is often the case, the news reports are somewhat unclear, however it appears that the defendant pleaded guilty to cruelty to a child under s.1(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933:
“If any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and has responsibility for a child or young person under that age, wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement), that person shall be guilty of an offence…”
It appears that the four month old child suffered two broken legs and a broken arm. The defendant’s account was seemingly that she was exercising the child’s legs when she the injuries occurred, however she did admit forcibly twisting the child’s arm when trying to dress her. The court was told that considerable force was used to inflict the injuries.
So if she was exercising the child’s legs, and therefore the injuries were inflicted by accident, why did she plead guilty? The offence makes clear that the act (the assault, ill-treatment, neglect, abandonment or exposure) has to be “wilful”. The courts have equated this with common law recklessness, and so the offence can be complete without an intention to break the child’s legs, but deliberately acting being reckless as to whether an injury would be inflicted (see R. v Shepherd  AC 394, HL).
So the fact that she didn’t break the child’s legs, for example, in a fit of rage, or set out intending to cause some injury does not mean that she is not guilty.
We suspect therefore, that there was a basis of plea setting out the circumstances in which the injuries were inflicted, namely that they were not deliberate (in the sense that there was no intention to cause such injuries) but they were inflicted recklessly.
The maximum sentence for the s.1 offence is 10 years.
The judge said:
“A baby is quite defenceless and has to rely on its mother and father to look after and protect it.
“You, who had principal care of the baby, through ignorance, through naivety, and perhaps with also a degree of selfishness, when dealing with the baby, it suffered a number of fractures.
“But I am prepared to accept that due to your very young age and lack of experience you were unaware and ignorant as to how easily a small baby could be hurt.”
The guidelines are the starting point. As is often the case, the facts of this case do not fit neatly into any of the categories, however the nearest is probably category 3 “Assault(s) resulting in injuries consistent with ABH” which carries a starting point of 36 weeks imprisonment. The nature of the injuries would suggest an increase from that starting point, as broken bones are clearly more serious than ABH.
The judge imposed (it appears) a community order with 12 months supervision and 150 hours of unpaid work. This is well below the guideline range. The justification for this is the youth of the defendant and her consequent ignorance and naivety as to how easily a child could be injured.
That reasoning – I suspect – is not likely to cut the mustard with much of the public, however one might wonder what purpose would be served by sending the defendant to custody? We don’t know if there were any other issues in the case, such as mental health, domestic abuse, drugs etc. and so it is difficult to comment, but for sake of argument, if there were other issues, surely the best thing for the child, for the mother and for society and the public purse is to treat/combat those issues, and help the defendant learn to be a competent and caring mother and avoid further offending.
Perhaps then, before being outraged at the lenient sentence, one might wonder a) whether there are factors that we have not been told and b) what is the best possible outcome for all concerned; sentencing is about more than just punishment after all.