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In 2019, Scotland was the first part of the United Kingdom to legally ban smacking. The smacking ban bill was first introduced by MSP John Finnie. With the support of other MSPs, and many child protection charities, he argued that smacking teaches children that ‘might is right.’ The intention was to send a strong message that violence was never acceptable at any time or place.

The Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour to introduce the ban which has come into force this week. The new legislation has removed the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. In practice, it is now a crime for parents to use any form of physical punishment on their children.

What was ‘Reasonable Chastisement’?

Previously, when making a decision on whether the chastisement of a child under the age of 16 years old was reasonable, the Courts would consider other factors. They would take into account: the nature of the punishment, the duration, the frequency, the age of the child and the mental and physical effect it had on the child. Smacking has been defined as open-handed hitting that does not injure a child and is typically done with the intention of modifying the child’s bad behaviour.

In practice, it was generally considered reasonable to smack a child lightly on their body, below their neck, as long as it did not cause injury. A report completed in 2015 found that the physical chastisement of a child was more common in the UK than in other European countries.

The Psychological Consequences of Smacking

For decades, physical punishment was commonly used as a way of modifying behaviour in children. It was considered distinct from physical abuse. Recent studies have shown that physical punishment will have negative consequences for both the child’s behaviour and their emotional health. As it causes pain, it can lead to fear and confusion in children which could lead to aggression later in life. By watching their parents hit them or a sibling, they are more likely to consider hitting acceptable behaviour.

Findings from the American Academy of Paediatrics found that children responded better to receiving awards for good behaviour, rather than being punished for bad. The change in behaviour from physical punishment was only temporary whereas, the mental health impact was long term.  

‘Violence is never acceptable’

The introduction of the legislation is recognition that violence should not have a place in childhood. It has been considered a common sense approach as Scotland is the 58th country to introduce the ban.

Whilst there has been some protest to the ban, it is widely recognised that it was a necessary step to change the law. There is indisputable evidence on the long term damage that can be caused by receiving physical punishment as a young child.

It is a significant step in the recognition of children’s rights as they will now be offered the same protection that is given to adults. Unfortunately, for some children, violence in childhood will remain their reality. The change in the law is recognition that violence, in any form, is never justifiable.

Blog by Emma Wheelhouse, Solicitor

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