Whether to cross the road for an errand or go to work on no-school days, every parent’s or legal guardian’s dilemma is whether to leave the child at home alone, even if for just a few minutes.
Since the closure of schools and child-care centres on the 13th of March 2020, this dilemma has become widespread and many parents and legal guardians have found themselves silently debating whether to stay at home caring for their children, or leave the children at home in order to go to work and run errands.
But from what age is it legal to leave a child unattended? This question is and will remain unanswered since, to date, there is no specific article in the Laws of Malta that establishes the exact age when children can be left unattended. A starting point for this debate would be what constitutes a child, and until which age are humans considered as children (as distinct from legal 'minors').
In 1990, Malta ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), thereby binding itself to comply with the agreed principles and standards which promote children’s fundamental rights and freedoms. According to article 1 of this convention, a child is every human being below the age of 18 years.
The next issue is, if Maltese law does not specifically indicate what happens in situations when children are left unattended, did the legislator protect children in any other way?
When ratifying the UNCRC, through article 19, Malta became obliged to protect children from neglect, among other things. Moreover, the Maltese Criminal Code outlaws the neglect, abandonment and exposure of children, which law can be interpreted to cover instances when children are left unattended.
Article 339(j) of the Maltese Criminal Code states that if anyone who is duty bound to take care of children neglects to take care of them, will be guilty of a contravention. Moreover, since there is no specific age mentioned, this article can be interpreted that it applies to all children under the age of 18 years.
On the other hand, article 246 of the same code specifically protects children under 7 years of age from abandonment and exposure and fixes the punishment for such crime to a term of between 7 months and one year imprisonment.
Therefore, the key question here is to what extent leaving children unattended constitutes neglect, abandonment or exposure.
According to section 3.2.1 of the Child Protection Procedures for Schools issued by the Education Division of Malta in September 1999, the neglect of a child includes the failure to protect a child from exposure to any kind of danger even by leaving young children alone and unsupervised at home or outside.
Moreover, article 247A states that whoever ill-treats a child under 16 years of age, for whom he or she is responsible or allows such ill-treatment to take place, whether by commission or omission, shall upon conviction be liable to up to 2 years imprisonment, unless such ill-treatment is accompanied by other criminal acts punishable by harsher penalties.
This means that if a child under 16 years of age is exposed to danger due to being left unattended, and in the process gets injured or in any other way ill-treated, then the adult who is responsible for such child at the time becomes criminally liable.
While writing this article, a popular childhood movie came to mind. I remember laughing wholeheartedly while watching it multiple times as a child. Now, as an adult and a parent, I believe that when these little adventurous human beings are left unattended (even for a split second), they are exposed to multiple dangers, not only burglaries as depicted in the block buster.
All in all, one must keep in mind that, as outlined in article 3 of the UNCRC, all actions and decisions concerning the child must always be based on the child’s best interest and therefore, those who are legally responsible for caring for a child must take this into consideration.
Dr Jenilee Agius
Family Law - Immigration Law - Civil Law
This commentary should not be regarded as legal advice. Contact us to learn more about children's rights and parents' rights and obligations at law.