The Reporter
Volume 14, Number 2 September 1997

Table of Contents

Parental Liability Laws

The public has become increasingly concerned with youth crime. Governments have tried to appease the public though measures such as more punitive youth crime laws and special police units to fight youth crime. Most recently, there has been interest in holding parents accountable for their children's actions.

The concept of parental liability in North America is not new. Parents have long been subject to laws such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor and providing dependent children with the necessities of life, including a suitable home environment. Most recently, North American parents have been subject to increased civil and criminal liability for their children's actions.

The goals of parental liability laws are seemingly admirable. Parental liability laws generally aim to involve parents in their children's lives, encourage improved parental control over children and decrease youth crime. However, as will be discussed in this article, parental liability laws often cause more harm than good. It will be shown that parental liability laws are a misguided and overly simplistic solution to the problem of youthful offending.

In the United States, at least 10 states and dozens of municipalities have enacted parental liability laws. California was the leader in enacting more punitive parental liability legislation. California's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988 holds parents/legal guardians criminally liable when they have not exercised "reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over the minor child." Punishments range from fines to imprisonment for up to one year. St. Clair Shores, Michigan was the first municipality to adopt a Parental Responsibility Ordinance which allows parents to be fined up to $100 for failing to control their children's actions or seek professional assistance.

In Canada, parents are not responsible for court ordered treatment or restitution ordered of a young person. However, there is some debate about whether parents currently have civil liability for the actions of their children under civil (tort) law. Generally, there is a reluctance on the part of courts to hold one person liable to compensate a third party unless that person has done something to breach a duty to the third party. There are, however, areas of tort law where vicarious liability of parents can be found; the plaintiff must persuade the court that the parents knew or reasonably ought to have known that the young person would commit the act in question.

Manitoba recently passed a Parental Responsibility Act which establishes parental civil liability for damages or losses to property caused by their dependent children. Parents of children who deliberately take, damage or destroy property of another person are liable for the loss suffered and the owner of the property can start civil action for damages up to $5,000. Alberta and Ontario intend to introduce similar legislation.

A recent development in the parental liability debate in Canada is a practice implemented by Canadian retailers The Bay and Zellers of sending letters through lawyers to the parents of shoplifters under the age of 18 demanding payment for damages or the company will sue the parents in civil court. The damages sum reflects a general amount (usually $225-$325) to cover store security and other shoplifting enforcement costs. The legality of these letters is currently being tested in the courts.

The aim of parental liability laws are generally to involve parents in their children's lives, encourage improved parental control over children and decrease youth crime. However, while there is an established relationship between poor parenting skills and youthful offending, this relationship does not suggest the need to punish parents for poor parenting. The reality is that many parents lack effective parenting skills and require support and assistance in addressing their children's behaviour problems. Parents want to provide for their children, but circumstances beyond their control may prevent them from providing the level of care and supervision necessary for a proper upbringing. Parental liability laws tend to disproportionately penalize poor, single-parent families who are unable to live up to middle-class parenting standards.

The legality of parental liability laws is suspect. In the United States and Canada, such laws may be unconstitutional or violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they essentially punish parents for their children's actions. These laws tend to violate basic rules of law such as that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Furthermore, parental liability laws penalize parents for the status of parenthood.

Parental liability laws have emerged during a time of calls for increased accountability of young offenders for their actions. Parental liability laws suggest that young people are not fully responsible for their actions. Yet, a principle tenet of the Young Offenders Act set out in the Declaration of Principle is that young people are to take responsibility for their actions. Parental liability laws send a confusing message to young people and their families and do nothing to encourage responsibility in young people.

Parental liability laws are not an effective means of fostering parental involvement in their children's lives. Rather, there is a need for early intervention and assistance for families in need. Parenting skills programs, readily accessible daycare and access to social programs are just some of the many things society could be doing to help parents. The court is not the proper milieu for addressing parenting problems; the problem is a social issue, not a legal one.

* References available upon request.


John Howard Society of Alberta Response to Renewing Youth Justice

The Young Offenders Act (YOA) has been shrouded in controversy since its inception in 1984 and has undergone a series of amendments. In June, 1994, in response to widespread public dissatisfaction with the YOA, then Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Allan Rock announced a two-part reform of the Young Offenders Act. Phase I entailed proposed amendments to the Young Offenders Act (Bill C-37). Bill C-37 was subsequently proclaimed in force in December, 1995. Phase II commenced in June , 1995, involving a comprehensive review of young offender laws and systems in Canada by the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs. This review culminated in Renewing Youth Justice, the thirteenth report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs. The report contains numerous recommendations regarding the long-term reform of youth justice in Canada. The John Howard Society of Alberta (JHSA) has taken an initial look at the recommendations in the report and offers the following initial commentary on the recommendations contained in Renewing Youth Justice.

Overall, the John Howard Society of Alberta is pleased with most of the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs in Renewing Youth Justice. The Standing Committee has made many thoughtful recommendations regarding youth crime, the Young Offenders Act and the youth justice system in Canada. The John Howard Society of Alberta supports many of the recommendations of the Standing Committee, including maintaining a separate youth justice system, retaining the upper age limit of the Young Offenders Act at 17, shifting resources from the criminal justice system and custodial institutions in particular into crime prevention initiatives and community-based services for young people and their families, and encouraging public education campaigns on youth crime, the Young Offenders Act and youth justice system.

However, there are several recommendations which are in direct contrast to the overall flavour of the report. These exceptions appear to be instances in which the Standing Committee fell prey to public pressures based on the very misconceptions the Committee observes in its report. The most glaring example is the Standing Committee's recommendation that the youth court be granted jurisdiction to deal with 10- and 11-year-old children alleged to have committed offences causing death or serious harm. The Standing Committee made this recommendation in concert with a lack of support for a general lowering of the minimum age of the Young Offenders Act, suggesting that a concession to public pressure was made for political reasons. The John Howard Society of Alberta believes that the nature of an offence committed by a child under 12 years of age is not an indication of the child's sophistication. Rather, it is an indication of the child's need for assistance. Therefore, we believe the most appropriate response to criminal cases involving children under the age of 12 is to handle them through child welfare and children's mental health services.

The John Howard Society of Alberta is currently developing a detailed response to Renewing Youth Justice which will be submitted to the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs in October.


John Howard Societies Announce New Web Sites

John Howard Society of Alberta

The John Howard Society of Alberta is pleased to announce the completion of our new internet homepage. The web site features:

  • over 75 research papers and publications available at no charge;
  • a What's New page which is updated monthly;
  • information about our 6 local John Howard Societies in Alberta, including email links;
  • our mission and values; and
  • an email link to help you contact us.

The John Howard Society of Alberta invites you to visit our new web site at the following address:

Edmonton John Howard Society

Edmonton John Howard Society is thrilled to announce the launch of its new web site. Featured is "Junior High Justice," a web site which provides legal education resources for use by teachers across Alberta through a web site on the internet. Five complete lessons are available for teachers to download. The lessons include student worksheets, overheads and teachers guides that are available to print from the internet.

Five separate lessons for use in grades 7, 8 and 9 are available. All lessons have been designed to be appropriate for various subject areas. The following lessons are available:

Young Offenders Act: Working or Not? (Social Studies, Ethics, Language Arts, Legal Studies)
Crimes and Consequences (Health, Social Studies, Legal Studies, Language Arts)
Impact of Youth Crime: A Question of Math (Mathematics, Legal Studies, Ethics)
How does your Community Compare? Crime Rates and Places (Social Studies - geography, Mathematics, Language Arts)
Youth Criminal Justice System: Behind the Scenes (Legal Studies, Ethics, Social Studies, Language Arts)

The lessons are interactive, accessible, ready to use, current, relevant, fun and free. An email connection is provided for additional assistance and resources.

This service is made possible through the generous support of the Alberta Law Foundation.

Edmonton John Howard Society agency homepage address:
Junior High Justice homepage address:

The John Howard Society of Alberta "Reporter" is distributed free of charge to a wide audience of citizens, educators, agencies and justice system staff. Our goal is to provide information and commentary on timely criminal justice issues. We welcome and encourage your feedback on the "Reporter."

The John Howard Society of Alberta is an agency composed of citizens in Alberta who are interested in criminal justice reform and preventing crime in our communities. We recognize that crime and its control is as much the responsibility of the community as it is of government.

We gratefully accept donations to help offset the costs of our efforts in criminal justice reform and crime prevention. Donations are income tax deductible. To provide feedback, obtain information or make a donation, please contact us at:

John Howard Society of Alberta
2nd Floor, 10523 - 100 Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5J 0A8
Phone: (403) 423-4878
Fax: (403) 425-0008

ISSN 1192-4381

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