Parents who run off with their children in custody battles could face kidnap charges under proposals to reform abduction laws.
The Law Commission, the Government’s law reform adviser, has suggested removing a requirement that force or fraud must be used for an abduction to be kidnap.
It would mean a warring parent who fails to return a child in a domestic dispute could face the prospect of being charged with kidnap, which carries a maximum life sentence.
In contrast, child abduction carries a maximum term of seven years.
The Commission insisted the planned reform was not designed to target those cases but to ensure criminals who entice children or vulnerable adults in to their cars or houses can be charged with kidnap.
The Law Commission has proposed revamping the law of kidnap as part of a drive to make legislation clearer.
Lord Justice Munby, chairman of the Commission, said: “The common understanding of kidnap doesn’t square with the law as it is at present.”
The specific requirement of the use of force or fraud to constitute a kidnapping should be removed to help protect children and vulnerable people, the advisers said.
Explaining the “serious problems” with the law as it stands, Professor David Ormerod, the law commissioner leading the consultation, said: “In practical terms, a young child or vulnerable adult who accompanies an offender without having been forced or defrauded into doing so won’t necessarily have been kidnapped.”
He added there was also an ambiguity over whether there could be “a prosecution for kidnap if an offender uses fraud to get someone to accompany him but he doesn’t actually detain them until the end of the journey, which runs counter to what most people would think of as kidnapping”.
In its consultation paper, the commission said: “The commission’s proposals would close this loophole.
“A lack of consent by the victim should be enough even if no force of fraud was used by the abductor.”
Under the current law, there is no equivalent offence of child abduction when the victim is a vulnerable adult, so unless force or fraud was used, prosecutors have to spend time “scrabbling around” for other offences, such as those against the person.
Charges of false imprisonment could also be brought, but only if a loss of liberty could be proven.
Prof Ormerod added: “Our aim is to clarify the definition and boundaries of kidnapping and to ensure that these forms of wrongdoing can be prosecuted with confidence.”
The commission is also considering whether some minor cases of kidnapping should be able to be heard by magistrates, rather than only in the crown court.
One in five kidnap cases heard by crown court judges leads to a sentence which could have been imposed quicker and cheaper by magistrates, figures showed.
The three options suggested by the commission, which include clearer definitions leading to fewer legal arguments and appeals, would each save at least £2.5 million, impact assessments showed.
But there would be no significant change in the total number of cases prosecuted.
Each year, up to 750 cases in which a person is charged with kidnapping go before magistrates, but only up to 150 cases result in a conviction at crown court.