We are often asked what the law is about supervising children, and when a child can be left unsupervised. In NSW, for better or for worse, there is no definite age. The question was posed recently by ABC News, when can you leave a child in a car 'unsupervised', for instance to duck inside and pay for the petrol?
What does the law say in NSW?
There isn't really clear law on this point in NSW. Under the Crimes Act (NSW), a person who, without reasonable excuse, intentionally abandons a child under 16 years of age is guilty of an offence if it causes a danger of death or of serious injury to the child. If however there is no injury or death then under this legislation leaving the child alone is not an issue. There is also legislation about neglect, but this is to do with failing to provide food, clothing, shelter and other necessities of life. Supervision by an adult is not listed as one of these necessities.
There is law in NSW, the Children (Education and Care Services) National Law (NSW) that makes it an offence for approved provider of an education and care service, or a family day care educator, to fail to ensure that children are adequately supervised, but not a similar legislative requirement for parents.
There is specific legislation in NSW about leaving a child in a car alone, but even that doesn't really spell out the requirements for supervision. It requires proper supervision, but failure to provide proper supervision is only an issue if the child is or is likely to become emotionally distressed, or if their health is or is likely to become impaired. So, hypothetically, if you leave a young baby asleep in a car on a cold day with a blanket, the windows open and with an audio monitor while you go inside a club and gamble, is that an offence under this legislation? Probably not, if you come out and get the baby as soon as it wakes up. It would be an offence by patching together other laws but you take the point, no individual section of legislation gives an age for supervision or the requirements for supervision. There is no specific legislation in NSW dealing with the age that a child should be supervised, or what that supervision would look like.
How long is a piece of string
Essentially in NSW it would depend on the facts and circumstances of the case. A kindergarten child in one circumstance would be completely fine walking home from school on their own, and in another circumstance that might be inappropriate and FaCS might become involved. The vague, or non existent legislation is good, because it allows each case to be viewed on it's merits, but it is also problematic particularly if the parents are divorced and can't agree on what is best for the child.
So can I leave my child in the car while I pay for the petrol?
There isn't a clear answer. Probably? If you did this, and the car was stolen and the child was endangered you could probably be charged with a crime. If you did this and you can see the car, the window is open, it isn't a hot day, and you aren't gone for long, then you will probably be fine.