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“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.” – Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Playing on this famous Dickens quote, Kelly Banham contemplates whether parents should be prosecuted for allowing their children to become obese.
In an unusual UK case, brothers David and Derek Benton were recently convicted of animal cruelty under the Protection of Animals Act 2000. Though the two denied mistreating their pet, the court found that they had ignored veterinarians who had advised them that their pet Labrador, which weighed 70 kilograms and looked like a walrus, was dangerously obese and that they should modify the dog’s diet.
The judgment creates a precedent to prosecute owners who overfeed their animals, thereby causing them to suffer. Viewed in the context of the British government’s efforts to curb childhood obesity by 2010, it may also give rise to the possibility that a similar cause of action might be brought against parents that allow their children to become obese. Since 2004, the government has taken a number of measures to stop the rise in childhood obesity including banning ads for junk foods during children’s television programming, promoting healthy meals at school, and increasing the amount of exercise at schools. Indeed, the trend in of increased childhood obesity has led the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to recommend a radical proposal that the government provide stomach reduction surgery for obese children.
Aside from the obvious cost concerns raised by this NICE proposal, the government is also sending mixed messages. In this scenario, the government will bear the expense of the surgery. However, if it were an fat pet, the owner would have to pay. So it appears that the government deems it acceptable for parents to allow their children to become obese thus causing unnecessary suffering, but if the owners of pets act in the same manner, they face prosecution. The result is that animals are better protected under the law than children. This is contrary to UK constitutional values and the legal provisions of the Human Rights Act of 1998.
Critics of the government’s approach to combating child obesity have suggested the government has not been forceful enough. If educating parents about the risks of childhood obesity is ineffective, than why not prosecute parents for child cruelty if they allow their children to become obese? Naturally, parents of children with medical conditions that lead to obesity would be free from such prosecutions. Such an approach would raise numerous problems, not the least of which is the staffing that would be required to monitor parents. The same is true for enforcement of animal cruelty laws though in the case above, it was a member of the public that alerted authorities to the abuse.
The government must take real steps to combat this serious and growing problem, including, if necessary, enabling the criminal prosecution of parents who do nothing to prevent their children’s obesity.

Source: [2007] Kelly Banham, New Law Journal, Vol. 157, No. 7261, 23 February 2007, p. 269, http://www.new-law-journal.co.uk/