UK: Legal Position on Physical Punishment

The UK is one of only five EU countries that have not yet legislated, or committed to legislating, to give children equal protection.

In 1998 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that UK laws failed to protect a young boy who was beaten by his stepfather with a garden cane, from inhumane and degrading treatment. The law at the time allowed the stepfather to justify the beating as reasonable chastisement. Six years later, the Children Act 2004 removed the defense of ‘reasonable chastisement’ for the charge of wounding, actual bodily harm and cruelty. However, it does allow parents charged with common assault to claim they administered ‘reasonable punishment’.

In 2008 international human rights bodies are still calling for the prohibition of all forms of corporal punishment in all settings; by not giving children this protection, the UK Government is ignoring its obligation to uphold the rights of children.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reiterated its recommendation that the UK Government should reform the law. The European Social Charter requires abolition of all corporal punishment, and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, expresses serious concern about the large number of children across the UK who suffer physical assault:

“The UK is one of the few European countries which have neither achieved full prohibition of corporal punishment nor committed themselves publicly to it. Worse, it is in a small minority whose laws actually persist in allowing parents and some other carers to justify some level of violence as ‘reasonable’ when it is regarded as discipline. This situation is unacceptable and must be changed.” (Council of Europe, 2008).

Law reform would be positive for both children and parents. In 2007 the Government commissioned an IPSOS MORI survey of a representative sample of 1822 parents to ascertain parents’ views on smacking: 78% thought that smacking was wrong or said they dislike the idea of smacking. Read more about the findings of the survey
The law sets standards in every sphere of society, including family relationships. How can we expect parents to stop hitting their children if the law says it is acceptable? Law reform should be matched with widespread public education and provision of parenting and family support services so that parents can access information, advice and support about alternative forms of discipline.