The European Court of Human Rights today awarded £10,000 damages and £20,000 in legal fees to a 14-year-old boy who claimed that a beating from his stepfather contravened the European convention on human rights.
The UK courts had previously decided that the beating, where a stepfather caned the then nine-year-old boy with a three-foot long garden cane, was permitted under the law as 'reasonable chastisement'. The UK court acquitted the stepfather. The boy cannot be named for legal reasons.
The nine-strong panel of judges in Strasbourg today ruled that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The treatment of the applicant by his stepfather was sufficiently severe to reach the level prohibited by Article 3 [of the Convention.]"
Although the court stressed that its decision related only to this specific case, the judges accepted that the case marked the end of all legal physical punishment of children in the UK.
Today's decision effectively makes corporal punishment illegal in the UK, and British legislation will require changes to give children the same rights against assault as adults. The UK will then join Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden in banning corporal punishment of children.*
Paul Boateng, a Government Health minister, claimed that the boy's punishment was "cruel, inexcusable and has no place in a civilised society". Save the Children welcomed the move: "In countries which banned physical punishment some time ago levels of violence against children are lower than in the UK, there are fewer prosecutions for violence against children and fewer children taken into care."
The charity Barnardos said the decision was an opportunity: "The judgment today gives a chance to change the culture of parenting for our children. We hope that the Government will take this opportunity to give protection to all children."
The National Children's Bureau, which supports the decision, believes that it will not lead to a rash of legal actions against parents. "The purpose and the effect of legal reforms to prohibit corporal punishment is not to prosecute more parents but to change attitudes and practice and thus reduce the need for prosecutions and other formal interventions in families. "Trivial assaults would not in any event lead to prosecutions, just as trivial assaults between adults do not reach court," a spokesman said.
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