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Law Commission seeks to simplify the law of child abduction and kidnapping

reunite welcomes recommendations

The law relating to kidnapping, false imprisonment and child abduction is due for reform, according to the Law Commission.

In a report published today, the Commission is recommending reforms that will clarify the offences of kidnapping and false imprisonment, and allow for the prosecution of parents who keep their children overseas in contravention of a court order or without permission of the other parent or guardian.

Child abduction
The Commission's recommended reforms to child abduction are designed to resolve two specific problems with the current law. The Court of Appeal has identified the seven-year maximum sentence for child abduction as being too limited in some extreme cases. To allow the courts to deal adequately with the gravest cases, the Commission is recommending the maximum sentence be increased to 14 years.

The courts have also identified a gap in child abduction law. A parent who takes a child overseas with permission but fails to bring them home is not committing a child abduction offence under the current law. To fill this gap, the Commission is recommending that child abduction should be extended to include cases where a child is lawfully removed from the UK but then unlawfully retained abroad.

Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for criminal law, said:

"The wrongful separation of a child from its parent can have a devastating effect on all involved. An opportunity exists to introduce reforms that will modernise and simplify this area of law, and allow the courts to deal adequately and appropriately with offenders.

"We know that at least 300 children a year are unlawfully retained overseas, and the problem is growing. Our recommendation will fill this clear gap in the law."

Kidnapping and false imprisonment
The Commission is recommending that the existing common law offences of kidnapping and false imprisonment be replaced with two new statutory offences. False imprisonment will be replaced by the statutory offence of unlawful detention. Kidnapping will become a statutory offence based on the use or threat of force to take or move the victim.

The new offences will capture the range of criminal conduct covered by the existing law. Defined in clear, modern language, they will help to clarify the distinction between kidnapping and false imprisonment, and make both easier to prosecute.

The report, Simplification of Criminal Law: Kidnapping and Related Offences, is available here.

reunite welcomes recommendations
Over the last 18 months, reunite, its Legal Working Group and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Child Abduction, have been consulting with the government to make wrongful retention a criminal offence, prosecutable and punishable on the same basis as abduction by removal, and reunite says that the Law Commission's recommendations are a huge step forward in bringing about a change to legislation.

reunite's statistics indicate that approximately 40 per cent of all abduction cases are in fact wrongful retentions; ie where a parent takes a child overseas with the other parent's consent (or in accordance with a court order) but subsequently refuses to allow the child to return home at the end of the agreed or authorised period. 

Whilst abduction by removal is a criminal offence, abduction by retention is not and so a large number of left-behind parents have no recourse to the criminal process or the assistance of the police, and statutory authorities are not necessarily empowered to act as they can in abduction cases.

reunite believes the impact on children and left-behind parents in a retention case is no less, nor any less deserving of criminal process, than where there is a removal.  Parental child abduction, whether by removal or retention, is recognised as a form of child abuse and causes real harm to children who potentially suffer great emotional trauma by suddenly being ripped away from all they know and being denied contact with their left-behind parent and extended family.  As the law stands at present, children who are retained outside of the UK are not offered the level of protection afforded to children in other abusive situations. 

Chief Executive Officer of reunite, Alison Shalaby, said:

"In the interests of children, left-behind parents, and of justice, there could and should be a change to legislation so that all left-behind parents have access to the assistance of the police, the criminal process and statutory authorities to ensure the swift resolution of cases of wrongful retention.    

"We would like to thank Sir John Stanley MP and Stephen Timms MP, Co-Chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Child Abduction, for supporting our efforts to change legislation.  We will continue working together to ensure the Law Commission's recommendations are advanced by the government and legislation is changed to better support abducted children and left-behind parents."

Stephen Timms MP, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Child Abduction said:

"Our concern around this anomaly in legislation comes in the context of a very marked increase in the number of cases of international parental child abduction in recent years.  There should be equality of treatment for what is essentially a serious criminal offence striking at the heart of family life, and in the individual interest of the left-behind parents and abducted children who are victims of retention."