The Times, September 24 1998

England's historic permissiveness toward abusive parents turns the corner,
By Frances Gib, Legal Correspondent

THE law allowing corporal punishment of children dates from a leading case in 1860 in which Chief Justice Cockburn said: "By the law of England, a [parent] ... may for the purpose of correcting what is evil in the child, inflict moderate and reasonable corporal punishment."

Prosecutions are mounted where it comes to light that a child has suffered a punishment that is considered unreasonable. But many do not come to light. And it is up to the courts to decide what is "reasonable".

The history of court rulings shows that judges and juries have regularly acquitted adults who have admitted using canes, belts, electric flexes and other implements on children, causing bruising and other injuries.

Key decisions include that in 1989 in which a mother who smacked and belted her nine-year-old daughter, causing severe bruising, successfully appealed against her conviction. Scotland's leading judge, the Lord Justice-General, said the punishment had been "richly deserved".

In October 1991 a mother who admitted beating her daughter with a garden cane and electric flex was cleared of assault and cruelty at Brighton Crown Court. The judge told the jury that reasonable corporal punishment was not illegal and that the cane could be used by parents, teachers and school prefects.

In July 1993 a father's conviction for assault was quashed on appeal at Hereford Crown Court. He had admitted using a belt to discipline his six-year-old son. The court was told that he used corporal punishment on all his children and even a belt on his wife.

In June 1995 a stepfather and wife who admitted disciplining the woman's children with a riding crop were cleared of all charges, even though their 11-year-old boy was marked by the crop more than 60 times.

There has been mounting pressure for change, usually led by Europe. A series of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights led first to the outlawing of corporal punishment in state schools in 1987 and then in some private schools (first in 1993 and then comprehensively in 1998).

Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Croatia, Cyprus and Latvia have now banned all corporal punishment of children. Others, including Belgium, Ireland, and Spain, are about to do so.

An alliance of more than 140 groups - including the NSPCC and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health - have been campaigning to give children the same protection under the law on assaults as adults.

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