A wild party, but where were the parents?

By Jonathan Goldberg, November 26, 2010

Natasha from Hampstead writes: My 14-year-old daughter was invited to a birthday party by one of her schoolfriends held on a Saturday evening in a large house in one of the best roads in north London.

I have heard terrible reports from my daughter and other girls about what followed. It seems the parents were out, and the only adults left in attendance were the 19-year-old brother and the Polish au pair girl. Alcopops were liberally available, some of the boys got drunk, and indecency was going on in the bedrooms and the garden (not involving my daughter, who rang her father and asked for a lift home early).

Needless to say, when I next met the mother at the school gates, I gave her a piece of my mind, but she claimed ignorance. She had been at the theatre with her husband.

Is there no law against allowing children to drink alcohol at home, or which demands that parents should at least stay home and supervise such parties?

Natasha, I can well understand your anger. The attitude of these parents appears shameful.

I have looked up the law, and to my own surprise, there seems to be nothing specific against children drinking in a private home, whether as members of the household or invited guests. It is a statutory offence to give alcohol to a child under five years of age in any circumstances (except medical), and it is also a statutory offence for alcohol to be bought or sold commercially to any child under 18 years. However, I cannot find anything which would even prevent parents serving double whisky and sodas to a child of any age above five at Shabbat dinner, if they wanted to.

Obviously if such behaviour were done to excess, and damage to the health of the child resulted, different considerations would apply. There would then be various criminal charges of child abuse or neglect which could be brought, but the circumstances would first have to be extreme.

As regards the duty of the parents of the birthday girl, I think they might have found themselves sued for civil damages if some serious incident had occurred to one of the guests, such as your daughter. Suppose, for example, there had been a non-consensual sexual act, or an accident involving personal injuries caused or contributed to by drunkeness. In such circumstances, under the general common law, I think the parents could be sued for breach of their duty of care by the child involved, acting through his parents. The classic statement of this duty, which falls upon each citizen at all times, can be seen in this famous quotation from Lord Atkin in a case in the House of Lords in 1932. He was not a Jewish judge, but he demonstrated interesting influences from Jewish law, I suggest.

"The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer's question: 'Who is my neighbour?' receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question."

Translating this duty to the present facts, Natasha, it does seem to me that parents cannot simply invite other children to their home for a party nowadays, when drink and even drugs are so prevalent, without ensuring full and adequate adult supervision. It cannot be good enough just to go to the theatre and leave it to an au pair girl and an elder brother, who may himself be just as likely to join in the fun as to supervise competently. I would be minded at the very least to write them a stiff letter, assuming they do not read this column.

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC, of Ely Place Chambers, is a leading London barrister.

Last updated: 10:46am, November 26 2010