Legislation and guidance about physical abuse
Across the UK, statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.
The law to protect children from physical assault dates back to 1861 (Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Current child protection laws protect children from physical abuse. But children’s rights campaigners such as the NSPCC continue to call for changes in the law to protect children from physical punishment.
Equal protection from physical assault
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should be protected from physical and mental violence, including physical punishment (United Nations, 1990 and 2006). But in England and Northern Ireland, children are the only group of people who are not fully protected from physical assault.
These defences can’t be used in cases where a child has suffered serious physical injury (actual bodily harm).
In Scotland, the defence of reasonable chastisement, which allowed parents and carers to justify physical punishment of their child, was abolished under the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019. The Act came into force on 07 November 2020.
In Wales, the defence of reasonable punishment, which allowed the physical punishment of children, will be abolished from 2022 under the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act.
In the States of Jersey, the Children and Education (Amendment) (Jersey) Law 2020 came into force in April 2020. This abolishes the defence of reasonable corporal punishment of a child.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidance on prosecuting child abuse in England and Wales (CPS, 2020). It sets out that the charge should be actual bodily harm (where the defence of reasonable punishment does not apply) "unless the injury is transient and trifling and amounted to no more than temporary reddening of the skin".
In cases of common assault, legal professionals are expected to judge for each individual case, whether the punishment was “reasonable and moderate”, taking into account factors such as the age of the child. This means they’re making subjective decisions on the severity of a child’s physical injuries and the pain they’ve experienced, and there could be variations in the extent to which children are protected from assault.
Guidance for medical professionals
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published guidance on the delivery of child protection medical assessments (RCPCH, 2020). The guidance for all UK nations sets out 13 standards to promote equitable, high-standard medical assessments where there are concerns about physical abuse and neglect.
The RCPCH has also published guidance on perplexing presentations (PP) and fabricated induced illness (FII). PP is used to describe situations where there are warning signs that a child might be experiencing FII, but there is no clear physical, mental or neurological diagnosis and practitioners do not think the child is at risk of immediate serious harm.
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