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 the UK, 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).
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidance on prosecuting child abuse in England and Wales (CPS, 2017). 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.
In Scotland and Wales, the governments are working to give children equal protection from assault.
The Scottish government has committed to giving children equal protection from assault: a Bill is working its way through the Scottish parliament (Proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill).
Following a public consultation in early 2018, the Welsh Government has announced its intention to introduce legislation to remove the defence of reasonable punishment (Welsh Government, 2018).
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