Over the last few years a number of cases involving children have hit the headlines that have proven particularly shocking. Many of these cases have included significant elements of physical and sexual abuse but it remains hard to ignore the fact that all of these cases take a mental and emotional toll on vulnerable victims.

Emotional abuse is a difficult concept to define and may arise in a great many circumstances. It may be said to be a form of abuse within which the abuser subjects another to a pattern of behaviour that may result in psychological trauma. It may also be referred to as Psychological or Mental Abuse.

Abuse in this sense may therefore arise in a wide variety of circumstances and represent a broad range of behaviours that could result in psychological injury.

It is entirely likely that certain forms of emotional, psychological or mental abuse could not be the subject of a criminal prosecution. The facts and circumstances in each case are likely to determine whether a prosecution could be brought. The decision to prosecute will be influenced by the nature and extent of any injury suffered by the victim and the range of sentences that a court may impose. The availability of evidence and proving that such abuse occurred will also be highly significant.

By way of example some of the issues that may be taken into consideration in cases of child cruelty and neglect are highlighted below.

Under the provisions of Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 any person who has attained the age of sixteen years and has responsibility for any child or young person under that age, who wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes them, or causes or procures them to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause 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) then that person will be guilty of an offence.

Neglect and cruelty may therefore include failing to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or accommodation. As noted the circumstances are likely to be critical to any decision to prosecute.

An offence under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 may result in a maximum sentence of 10 years on indictment. The maximum penalty for a charge of assault under section 20 or section 47 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is five years.

Offences involving child cruelty and neglect are perhaps more likely to arise where the behaviour has occurred over a period of time.
Prosecutions for assault are more likely to arise where extreme or significant violence is a feature, and where the result of that violence is serious injury sufficient to support a charge of wounding/causing grievous bodily harm with intent. Examples include extreme shaking or swinging a child against a wall or object.

In some cases, the circumstances might justify a prosecution being brought for both assault and offences under section 1, for example, assaults and cruelty over a period of time that culminate in a child being pushed down the stairs and sustaining serious injuries. Each case will always be considered on its own facts.

As can be seen the facts and circumstances are highly important but in principle it is fair to say that prosecutions are possible for cases of emotional abuse even in the absence of more evident physical or sexual abuse. It will be a decision for the Police and perhaps other authorities whether there is sufficient evidence to investigate and ultimately a decision for the Crown Prosecution Service whether a prosecution can or will be pursued.

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