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Are Parents Liable for their Children’s Wrongdoing?

Are Parents Liable for their Children’s Wrongdoing?

Periodically, there will be an interesting case in the news about a court case somewhere that involves the question of whether parents should be responsible in law for the misbehaviour of their children. Depending on the jurisdiction, the outcome of these cases can vary greatly, and is usually the subject of some controversy.

In Ontario, there is actually legislation that addresses this issue to some extent: The Parental Responsibility Act, 2000 provides that where a child (i.e. under age 18) takes, damages or destroys property, the owner of that property may bring an action against the child’s parent in Small Claims Court. Furthermore, the parent is liable for any damages the child caused, unless that parent can satisfy a court that:

1) the activity that caused the loss or damages was not intentional; OR

2) he or she was exercising reasonable supervision over the child at the time, and that he or she made reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage the child from engaging in the kind of activity that resulted in the loss or damage.

The Act provides a relatively narrow set of remedies for a narrow range of civil misconduct (it does not purport to cover criminal activity by a minor, for example). And the wording seems fairly straightforward.

So how does this legislation play out in real life? Not always as one might expect.

A decision called Shannon v. Westman (Litigation Guardian of) illustrates how this legislation is applied. In that case, a 14-year-old boy named Jeremy was paid to babysit another child, Tyler, who was 10. While under Jeremy’s supervision – and at his instigation – both children broke into the residence of a homeowner and stole several items, including some valuable pieces of jewellery that had sentimental value.

Jeremy and Tyler admitted to stealing the items, and returned several of them. However, some of the valuables remained unrecovered.

Relying on the provisions of the Parental Responsibility Act, 2000, the homeowner brought an action in Small Claims Court against both the parents and the children, for the value of those items that could not be recovered.

Perhaps surprisingly, the court allowed the homeowner’s action against the children, but dismissed it against the children’s parents.

Since the boys had admitted to the theft, the homeowner had established the fact of the stolen property, so all that remained to find liability under the Parental Responsibility Act, 2000 was for the parents to show that they were exercising reasonable supervision over the boys at the time they committed the break-in, and that they had made reasonable efforts to discourage them from participating in that type of activity.

Turning first to Jeremy’s parents, the court had to examine whether it was reasonable for his parents to allow him to be left at home during the day without supervision. Taking into account all the circumstances – such as Jeremy’s age, experience, background, and the previous history of having left him unsupervised without incident – the court found that it was.

Turning next to Tyler, the court found that at 10 years old, he was at the age when he would not have needed constant supervision; indeed, in the past he had been left with Jeremy without incident for about 7 weeks prior to the break-and-enter. Tyler’s parents had also imposed a structure on the boys’ daily activities, including set check-in-times with the parents, and permission to engage in only approved activities, and it was a structure that both boys had adhered to in the past. Considering all these factors, the court found that Tyler’s parents had also acted reasonably in this case.

In coming to these conclusions, the court noted that the Parental Responsibility Act, 2000 required only that the parents act reasonably; it did not demand perfection. As such, it considered the test under the Act to have been met, and the homeowner’s action against both Jeremy’s and Tyler’s parents was dismissed. However, his action against Jeremy and Tyler was allowed, for damages of almost $20,000, though the amount was reduced to $10,000 to bring it within the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court at the time.

For the full-text of the legislation, see: http://canlii.ca/t/1k97

For the full-text of the decision, see:

Shannon v. Westman (Litigation Guardian of) (2002), 2002 CarswellOnt 2141 (Ont. S.C.J.)