By Amber Wassall

‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens is a story about a nine-year-old orphan boy who runs away from his life in a workhouse and as an apprentice to an undertaker to London. In London, he meets Jack Dawkins also known as the ‘Artful Dodger’ and joins a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

What happens and who looks after you if your parents die?

Oliver’s parents are both said to be dead leaving Oliver as an orphan. Oliver’s parents did not seem to have a will and so he ended up being brought up in the workhouse in which he was born. In today’s society, 59% of parents do not have an up to date will or a will at all. It is important for parents to have a will because they can specify who they would like to look after their children if they die before the children turn 18.

In the book, Mr Bumble was the beadle of the workhouse where Oliver lived. Due to this, it appears that Mr Bumble would be the individual who had parental responsibility over Oliver or the closest thing to it. Parent responsibility would allow Mr Bumble to be involved in decisions in Oliver’s life. However, it could be argued that Mr Bumble’s actions were abusive towards Oliver. For example, being practically starved, neglected and physically abused.

In the UK, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out certain rights that a child is given. The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 reflects these rights into Welsh law. The UNCRC rights that would apply to Oliver Twist include:

  • Article 3 – Best interests of the child
  • Article 12 – Respect for the views of the child
  • Article 19 – Protection from violence, abuse and neglect
  • Article 20 – Children unable to live with their family

What happens if you are forced to work as a child?

In the book, Oliver is raised in a workhouse where the work was commonly in mines or factories. This work could be potentially dangerous to a child. In today’s society, would Oliver be allowed to undertake such dangerous jobs?

There are laws in the UK which make sure that children can’t do too much work. The laws generally restrict anyone under the age of 14 from working. However, a 13-year-old may do ‘light work’. Working in a mine or factory as Oliver did would not be seen as ‘light work’. Also, as Oliver was only 9 years old, it is very unlikely that he would be able to legally work in the capacity that the workhouse.

Also, Article 32 UNCRC focuses on child labour. It states that children must be protected from economic exploitation, work that may be dangerous and that a minimum age must be set for child to work. To achieve this, laws such as the Employment of Women, Children and Young Persons Act 1920 and section 18 of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 have been created to prohibit the use and exploitation of children in dangerous labour.

From exploring the law, it can be seen that under today’s law, Oliver would not be made to work in such conditions and at his age it would be illegal to work in the conditions that he was subjected to.

What happens if you join a gang as a child?

After his journey to London, Oliver ends up as part of ‘Fagin’s Gang’ which is a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Being part of a gang is not automatically a problem. The issue arises when the activity that the gang participates in becomes violent and/or criminal. This becomes an issue for a child as it could lead to a criminal record which may cause further difficulties in later life. Would Oliver be in any legal trouble in today’s society for the activity he was a part of in Fagin’s Gang?

Section 34 of the Serious Crime Act (SCA) 2009 defines a ‘gang’. It states that a ‘gang’ is a group which:

  • Consists of at least 3 members
  • Has one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group
  • Engages in gang-related violence or is involved in the illegal drug market

From this, it can be seen that Fagin’s Gang would likely be seen as a gang by the law because there were more than 3 members who were involved in stealing and pickpocketing around the streets of London. However, violence was not committed by the children in Fagin’s Gang.

Section 51 SCA focuses on gang-related injunctions. These can be imposed on gang members to prohibit them from participating in gang-related violence. It could be argued that these could be imposed on the children in the group including Oliver himself. However, Section 34 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 states that an injunction may only be granted against an individual who is aged 14 or over. As Oliver was only 9 years old, an injunction would not be able to be made against him to stop him from doing this illegal activity.

To conclude, despite there not being many visible legal ways to stop a child from joining a gang, in today’s society, there are other resources to get help such as schools, local voluntary organisations and online which could help Oliver to not make decisions that could hinder his future.

My name is Amber Wassall. I am a second year Law student at Swansea University. My current ambition is to complete the Legal Practice Course after I finish my degree. I am unsure which area I would like to practice in at the moment, but I am incredibly interested in Family Law as well as Human Rights Law which is why I am very interested in being involved in the ‘Reading My Rights’ project.