New law to trap parents who murder

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The Independent Online

A new charge of joint homicide is to be introduced to close a loophole that allows parents to escape justice by covering up for each other when children are killed or seriously injured at home.

A new charge of joint homicide is to be introduced to close a loophole that allows parents to escape justice by covering up for each other when children are killed or seriously injured at home.

Latest figures show that three children under 10 are killed or seriously injured each week.

But while 90 per cent of adult murders are solved and result in convictions, almost two-thirds of cases of child murder or serious assault never get to court, and of those that do, just 27 per cent result in a conviction. Only a tiny number are found guilty of murder or manslaughter.

It is a record that even the police admit is "appalling". Now the Government has signalled it is ready to change the law. Home Office minister Hilary Benn, in a Commons written answer last week, said it accepted the "need for the law to be strengthened so that people jointly accused cannot evade justice by protecting each other".

He said a number of possibilities were being considered, including changes to procedures in the wake of a child death. A Home Office spokeswoman said the Government would "legislate at the earliest possible opportunity".

Ministerial action will be assisted by two reports – one from the Law Commission, the other from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The NSPCC report, entitled Which of You Did It?, records the findings of a working party led by Judge Isobel Plumstead, to look into the problems of bringing child killers to justice. English case law determines that if it cannot be proved which parent was responsible for the death or serious injury of a child then there is no case to answer.

The charity is now calling for a review of the police and prosecution process with an emphasis on avoiding delays. They want parents, who now have the right to silence, to be required to account for the period in which the injury took place. They want similar previous injuries to the child to be admissible in court, for each carer to have a separate case to answer, for parents to be split up and questioned separately early in an investigation and for a national register of people who are violent towards children to be established.

But, one of the main recommendations will be a new charge of joint homicide, an NSPCC source said. "The principle is if neither of you say you are guilty then both of you must be guilty."

The working party report is based on research by Sussex police carried out after two horrifying cases. In one, three children – two baby brothers and a cousin – in Brighton had died of suffocation, the first in 1994 and the last two within days of each other in 1997. Inside their house, in sickening conditions, the police uncovered a catalogue of neglect.

But in 1999 both parents were acquitted of murder because the prosecution was unable to say which of them was responsible for the injuries. In 2000 lesser charges of wilful neglect were brought. The father was jailed for six years, the mother for 30 months.

Det Insp Malcolm Bacon, who was involved in the cases, said families and police would welcome the changes. He said: "All murders are terrible but dealing with the killing of a child is awful. You know one of them has done it. You know instinctively which one it is. But you can't prove it."