30 April 2023

As the law stands currently, parents and carers can use “reasonable” force to discipline their children in Northern Ireland.

The Children’s Law Centre, along with other organisations that advocate on behalf of children, have long campaigned to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have also called to prohibit as a matter of priority all corporal punishment in the family, including through the repeal of all legal defences, such as “reasonable chastisement”.

Northern Ireland is lagging behind the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (and indeed many other countries around the world) in relation to giving children equal protection from assault.

Research commissioned in 2017 by the NI Children’s Commissioner shows that views about physical punishment are changing, with the majority of people in NI now supporting children being legally protected from hitting, smacking and assault.

However, for those that say, “well it never did me any harm”, Roald Dahl writes about physical punishment in his autobiography ‘Boy: Tales of Childhood’ and while his experience is in the context of school, the message remains the same:

“By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely.

I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.

It would, of course, be unfair to suggest that all masters were constantly beating the daylights out of all the boys in those days. They weren’t. Only a few did so, but that was quite enough to leave a lasting impression of horror upon me.

It left another more physical impression upon me as well. Even today, whenever I have to sit for any length of time on a hard bench or chair, I begin to feel my heart beating along the old lines that the cane made on my bottom some fifty-five years ago.”

Research has shown that the physical punishment of children is ineffective as a method of discipline and confirms that positive parenting has much better outcomes.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, UCL, writing in the forward of a report which reviewed the effects of physical punishment on the child and in the family sums it up well:

 “The international evidence could not be any clearer – physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse”.

Given the established evidence outlining the harm physical punishment causes children and the repeated calls from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to ban physical punishment in the home, it should be a priority for decision makers in this jurisdiction to remove the defence of reasonable punishment, therefore prohibiting all forms of physical punishment in the home. CLC would also encourage the implementation of comprehensive government support for parents to develop positive parenting skills.

Our children deserve equal protection. It’s past time we delivered it for them.

Image of report front cover with text reading 'NI NGO Stakeholder Report 2 - Endorsed by over 50 organisations and individuals'
We raised the case for removing the defence of reasonable punishment in our NI NGO Stakeholder Report 2.