Cruelty to a child

Children and Young Persons Act 1933, s.1(1)
Effective from: 04 August 2008

Triable either way
Maximum when tried summarily: Level 5 fine and/or 6 months
Maximum when tried on indictment: 10 years

User guide for this offence

Key factors

This guideline and accompanying notes are taken from the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s definitive guidelines Overarching Principles: Assaults on children and Cruelty to a child, published 20 February 2008 Key factors

  1. The same starting point and sentencing range is proposed for offences which might fall into the four categories (assault; ill-treatment or neglect; abandonment; and failure to protect). These are designed to take into account the fact that the victim is particularly vulnerable, assuming an abuse of trust or power and the likelihood of psychological harm, and designed to reflect the seriousness with which society as a whole regards these offences.
  2. As noted above, the starting points have been calculated to reflect the likelihood of psychological harm and this cannot be treated as an aggravating factor. Where there is an especially serious physical or psychological effect on the victim, even if unintended, this should increase sentence.
  3. The normal sentencing starting point for an offence of child cruelty should be a custodial sentence. The length of that sentence will be influenced by the circumstances in which the offence took place.
  4. However, in considering whether a custodial sentence is the most appropriate disposal, the court should take into account any available information concerning the future care of the child.
  5. Where the offender is the sole or primary carer of the victim or other dependants, this potentially should be taken into account for sentencing purposes, regardless of whether the offender is male or female. In such cases, an immediate custodial sentence may not be appropriate.
  6. The most relevant areas of personal mitigation are likely to be:
    • Mental illness/depression
    • Inability to cope with the pressures of parenthood
    • Lack of support
    • Sleep deprivation
    • Offender dominated by an abusive or stronger partner
    • Extreme behavioural difficulties in the child, often coupled with a lack of support
    • Inability to secure assistance or support services in spite of every effort having been made by the offender.

Some of the factors identified above, in particular sleep deprivation, lack of support and an inability to cope, could be regarded as an inherent part of caring for children, especially when a child is very young and could be put forward as mitigation by most carers charged with an offence of child cruelty. It follows that, before being accepted as mitigation, there must be evidence that these factors were present to a high degree and had an identifiable and significant impact on the offender’s behaviour.

Offence seriousness (culpability and harm)

A. Identify the appropriate starting point

Starting points based on first time offender pleading not guilty

Examples of nature of activity Starting point Range
  1. Short term neglect or ill-treatment
  2. Single incident of short-term abandonment
  3. Failure to protect a child from any of the above
12 weeks custody Low level community order to 26 weeks custody
  1. Assault(s) resulting in injuries consistent with ABH
  2. More than one incident of neglect or ill-treatment (but not amounting to long-term behaviour)
  3. Single incident of long-term abandonment OR regular incidents of short-term abandonment (the longer the period of long-term abandonment or the greater the number of incidents of short-term abandonment, the more serious the offence)
  4. Failure to protect a child from any of the above
Crown Court 26 weeks custody to Crown Court
  1. Series of assaults
  2. Protracted neglect or ill-treatment
  3. Serious cruelty over a period of time
  4. Failure to protect a child from any of the above
Crown Court Crown Court

Community orders table

The seriousness of the offence should be the initial factor in determining which requirements to include in a community order. Offence-specific guidelines refer to three sentencing levels within the community order band based on offence seriousness (low, medium and high). See below for non-exhaustive examples of requirements that might be appropriate in each.

At least one requirement MUST be imposed for the purpose of punishment and/or a fine imposed in addition to the community order unless there are exceptional circumstances which relate to the offence or the offender that would make it unjust in all the circumstances to do so. For further information see the Imposition guideline.

A suspended sentence MUST NOT be imposed as a more severe form of community order. A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence.




Offences only just cross community order threshold, where the seriousness of the offence or the nature of the offender’s record means that a discharge or fine is inappropriate

In general, only one requirement will be appropriate and the length may be curtailed if additional requirements are necessary

Offences that obviously fall within the community order band

Offences only just fall below the custody threshold or the custody threshold is crossed but a community order is more appropriate in the circumstances

More intensive sentences which combine two or more requirements may be appropriate

Suitable requirements might include:

  • Any appropriate rehabilitative requirement(s)
  • 40 – 80 hours of unpaid work
  • Curfew requirement for example up to 16 hours per day for a few weeks
  • Exclusion requirement, for a few months
  • Prohibited activity requirement
  • Attendance centre requirement (where available)

Suitable requirements might include:

  • Any appropriate rehabilitative requirement(s)
  •  80 – 150 hours of unpaid work
  • Curfew requirement for example up to 16 hours for 2 – 3 months
  • Exclusion requirement lasting in the region of 6 months
  • Prohibited activity requirement


Suitable requirements might include:

  • Any appropriate rehabilitative requirement(s)
  • 150 – 300 hours of unpaid work
  • Curfew requirement for example up to 16 hours per day for 4 – 12 months
  • Exclusion requirement lasting in the region of 12 months

* If order does not contain a punitive requirement, suggested fine levels are indicated below:




Custodial sentences

The approach to the imposition of a custodial sentence should be as follows:

1) Has the custody threshold been passed?

  • A custodial sentence must not be imposed unless the offence or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence.
  • There is no general definition of where the custody threshold lies. The circumstances of the individual offence and the factors assessed by offence-specific guidelines will determine whether an offence is so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified. Where no offence specific guideline is available to determine seriousness, the harm caused by the offence, the culpability of the offender and any previous convictions will be relevant to the assessment.
  • The clear intention of the threshold test is to reserve prison as a punishment for the most serious offences.

2) Is it unavoidable that a sentence of imprisonment be imposed?

  • Passing the custody threshold does not mean that a custodial sentence should be deemed inevitable. Custody should not be imposed where a community order could provide sufficient restriction on an offender’s liberty (by way of punishment) while addressing the rehabilitation of the offender to prevent future crime.
  • For offenders on the cusp of custody, imprisonment should not be imposed where there would be an impact on dependants which would make a custodial sentence disproportionate to achieving the aims of sentencing.

3) What is the shortest term commensurate with the seriousness of the offence?

  • In considering this the court must NOT consider any licence or post sentence supervision requirements which may subsequently be imposed upon the offender’s release.

4) Can the sentence be suspended?

  • A suspended sentence MUST NOT be imposed as a more severe form of community order. A suspended sentence is a custodial sentence. Sentencers should be clear that they would impose an immediate custodial sentence if the power to suspend were not available. If not, a non-custodial sentence should be imposed.

The following factors should be weighed in considering whether it is possible to suspend the sentence:

Factors indicating that it would not be appropriate to suspend a custodial sentence

Factors indicating that it may be appropriate to suspend a custodial sentence

Offender presents a risk/danger to the public

Realistic prospect of rehabilitation

Appropriate punishment can only be achieved by immediate custody

Strong personal mitigation

History of poor compliance with court orders

Immediate custody will result in significant harmful impact upon others

The imposition of a custodial sentence is both punishment and a deterrent. To ensure that the overall terms of the suspended sentence are commensurate with offence seriousness, care must be taken to ensure requirements imposed are not excessive. A court wishing to impose onerous or intensive requirements should reconsider whether a community sentence might be more appropriate.

Pre-sentence report

Whenever the court reaches the provisional view that:

  • the custody threshold has been passed; and, if so
  • the length of imprisonment which represents the shortest term commensurate with the seriousness of the offence;

the court should obtain a pre-sentence report, whether verbal or written, unless the court considers a report to be unnecessary. Ideally a pre-sentence report should be completed on the same day to avoid adjourning the case.

Magistrates: Consult your legal adviser before deciding to sentence to custody without a pre-sentence report.

For further information and sentencing flowcharts see the Imposition guideline.

B. Consider the effect of aggravating and mitigating factors (other than those within examples above)

The following may be particularly relevant but these lists are not exhaustive


  1. Targeting one particular child from the family
  2. Sadistic behaviour
  3. Threats to prevent the victim from reporting the offence
  4. Deliberate concealment of the victim from the authorities
  5. Failure to seek medical help


  1. Seeking medical help or bringing the situation to the notice of the authorities
Common aggravating and mitigating factors
 Taken from Sentencing Guidelines Council Guideline Overarching Principles: Seriousness

Aggravating factors

Factors indicating higher culpability:
  • Offence committed whilst on bail for other offences
  • Failure to respond to previous sentences
  • Offence was racially or religiously aggravated
  • Offence motivated by, or demonstrating, hostility to the victim based on his or her sexual orientation (or presumed sexual orientation)
  • Offence motivated by, or demonstrating, hostility based on the victim’s disability (or presumed disability)
  • Previous conviction(s), particularly where a pattern of repeat offending is disclosed
  • Planning of an offence
  • An intention to commit more serious harm than actually resulted from the offence
  • Offenders operating in groups or gangs
  • ‘Professional’ offending
  • Commission of the offence for financial gain (where this is not inherent in the offence itself)
  • High level of profit from the offence
  • An attempt to conceal or dispose of evidence
  • Failure to respond to warnings or concerns expressed by others about the offender’s behaviour
  • Offence committed whilst on licence
  • Offence motivated by hostility towards a minority group, or a member or members of it
  • Deliberate targeting of vulnerable victim(s)
  • Commission of an offence while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Use of a weapon to frighten or injure victim
  • Deliberate and gratuitous violence or damage to property, over and above what is needed to carry out the offence
  • Abuse of power
  • Abuse of a position of trust
Factors indicating a more than usually serious degree of harm:
  • Multiple victims
  • An especially serious physical or psychological effect on the victim, even if unintended
  • A sustained assault or repeated assaults on the same victim
  • Victim is particularly vulnerable
  • Location of the offence (for example, in an isolated place)
  • Offence is committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public
  • Presence of others e.g. relatives, especially children or partner of the victim
  • Additional degradation of the victim (e.g. taking photographs of a victim as part of a sexual offence)
  • In property offences, high value (including sentimental value) of property to the victim, or substantial consequential loss (e.g. where the theft of equipment causes serious disruption to a victim’s life or business)

Mitigating factors

Factors indicating lower culpability:
  • A greater degree of provocation than normally expected
  • Mental illness or disability
  • Youth or age, where it affects the responsibility of the individual defendant
  • The fact that the offender played only a minor role in the offence

Form a preliminary view of the appropriate sentence, then consider offender mitigation

Offender mitigation

  • Genuine remorse
  • Admissions to police in interview
  • Ready co-operation with authorities

Consider a reduction for a guilty plea

Consider ancillary orders, including compensation

View guidance on available ancillary orders and compensation.

Decide sentence

Give reasons