The law on smacking children

In the UK we have a long history of using smacking or other corporal punishment on our children. Fortunately, gone are the days of schoolteachers dishing out canings, but when it comes to smacking our own children, the law is a little more complicated.

The law relating to smacking children was changed in section 58 of the Children Act 2004. As it stands, the law stipulates that “it is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’”.

This has left somewhat of a grey area around what parents can and cannot do to their children as punishment, and each situation can differ. Whether a smack is considered to be a ‘reasonable punishment’ relies heavily on factors such as the child’s age and the nature of the smack.

It is important that parents are aware that stepping over the line when it comes to smacking their child could result in the action being considered to be actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, wounding, or child cruelty.

Who has the legal right to smack a child?

The law stipulates that it is illegal for anyone other than the child’s parents to smack them. This means that teachers, nursery workers, or childcare workers are not allowed to smack a child, but a babysitter or nanny can do if parents give their permission.

The legality of smacking

There are times when intentionally hurting a child can get parents into trouble with the law. A parent can be charged with a criminal offence in one of three situations:

1. Sections 18 and 20 Offences against the Person Act 1861 – for wounding and causing grievous bodily harm (GBH)

2. Section 47 of the Person Act 1861 – for assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH)

3. Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 – for cruelty to persons under 16

Parents can be accused of common assault, which would include injuries that amount to no more than:

  • Abrasions
  • Black eye
  • Grazing
  • Minor bruises
  • Scratches
  • Swellings
  • Superficial cuts
  • Reddening of the skin

The charging standard stipulates that “… there may be cases where the injuries suffered by a victim would usually amount to common assault but due to the presence of serious aggravating features, they could more appropriately be charged as actual bodily harm.” But that “…the definition of assault occasioning actual bodily harm requires the injury to be more than transient and trifling.”

Actual bodily harm

When you are looking at the difference between common assault as detailed above and actual bodily harm (ABH) when it comes to a child, the key determiner is the severity of the harm that is caused to the child. Some examples of actual bodily harm include:

  • Breaking of or loss of a tooth
  • Extensive or multiple bruising
  • Minor fractures
  • Psychiatric injury – more than an emotion such as stress or fear
  • Temporary loss of sensory functions, for example, loss of consciousness
  • Broken nose
  • Minor but not superficial injuries such as cuts that would require medical treatment

Grievous bodily harm

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) and wounding technically consist of harm that consists of damaging the inner and outer layers of skin. Some examples of this harm include:

  • Injuries that result in the permanent loss of sensory function or disability
  • Broken bones such as cheekbones, ribs, and jaw, and compound fractures
  • Injuries that result in incapacity or lengthy treatment
  • Injuries that result in more than a permanent visible disfigurement, displaced or broken bones or limbs included a fractured skull
  • Injuries that result in a substantial loss of blood that requires a transfusion
  • Psychiatric injury

There is also a case for GBH with intent. This means that the person who has inflicted the harm by wounding or causing grievous bodily harm unlawfully, maliciously, and intentionally. This is the most serious of these offences and can carry a life prison sentence.

NSPCC Guidance

Although NSPCC smacking has been traditionally used by parents to instill discipline into their children, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) recommends that there are other ways to do this with your child.

The NSPCC suggests that instead of teaching them discipline, smacking actually has far more negative effects on the child, such as:

  • It teaches them that it is ok to lash out when you are angry
  • It might encourage children to be dishonest in order to avoid being smacked
  • It could lead to an angry or resentful child and damage relationships within the family
  • It could lead to children copying you and hitting or smacking other children and/or adults
  • It could worsen defiant behaviour

Instead of smacking, the NSPCC recommends that you discipline your children in other ways, such as:

  • Set simple and clear rules and limits
  • Be a good example yourself
  • Praise and reward good behaviour
  • Do not criticise your child, but criticise bad behaviour
  • Distract young children using humour
  • If you need to punish, remove privileges or take ‘time outs’
  • Try not to react to bad behaviour
  • Make joint decisions with your child

Contact Waldrons solicitors

Here at Waldrons our team of expert family law solicitors are on hand to speak to you, get in touch today!

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Last reviewed on 11/07/23 by Luke Boxall who is a Solicitor and Director