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Do children have to be a certain age before parents can leave them home unsupervised or allow them to walk to school by themselves?
Opinions differ widely on the topic and the debate rages over what is right or wrong, including on Internet blogs.
This article explores some legal issues around what age is ‘old enough’ for a child to be left unsupervised.
Does the law specify when a child is old enough?
There are no laws in the Australian Capital Territory or New South Wales specifying how old a child must be before they can be left at home or participate in activities unsupervised. In these two jurisdictions, you must use your own judgement based on what is reasonable in the particular situation.
Interestingly, Queensland is the only state in Australia that makes it a criminal offence and specifies an age. In Queensland, it’s an offence to leave a child alone if they’re under the age of 12 for an unreasonable period. This offence carries a term of up to three years’ imprisonment.
What does the law specify?
The Family Law Act 1975 (Cwlth) doesn’t spell out every parental duty and responsibility. All parents have ‘parental responsibility’, unless the Family Court orders otherwise. This concept combines some principles of old common law and other statute law. It includes your rights and duties to properly and adequately care for your children.
What are a parent’s duties?
In broad terms, you must comply with all common law and legal duties when caring for your children. This includes providing adequate care and attention and a proper level of financial support. It also includes providing food, clothing, schooling, a place to live, and proper safety and supervision.
Given that there are no definite ages specified for children to remain at home alone or for being unsupervised, you must use your own judgement, based on an objective test of what is reasonable.
You can be charged if you neglect or harm children or leave them unsupervised or in potentially dangerous situations. This includes, for example, leaving young children unattended in cars for an unreasonably long time.
If a child’s immediate safety is in danger, the care and protection agency in your territory or state can remove them from the situation and place them with another carer.
Can older siblings take care of younger ones?
You must consider a range of issues before deciding whether to leave younger children in the care of older siblings. You need to consider how old the sibling is and weigh this up against what can be reasonably expected of them. Are they mature? How do they feel about being left alone? How long will they be supervising? Are there potential exposures to risk and danger?
If an accident happens and the younger child is hurt, you—as the parent—could be liable for negligence. Ultimately, it’s you, not the under-age carer, who is responsible if something goes wrong.
Is it worth seeing a lawyer if I’m confused about my responsibilities?
It’s always best to obtain Family Law advice from a specialist law firm with years of experience. Our specialist lawyers can certainly help.
This expert column was prepared by Debra Parker, Partner, Watts McCray Lawyers Canberra.
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