The law on smacking children

This page explains the law on smacking and physically disciplining children. It explains when this would amount to an offence and the possible defences to this.

It is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’.

What is the law on smacking children?

It is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’. This defence is laid down in section 58 Children Act 2004, but it is not defined in this legislation. 

Whether a ‘smack’ amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case, taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack. 

There are strict guidelines covering the use of reasonable punishment and it will not be possible to rely on the defence if you use severe physical punishment on your child which amounts to wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or child cruelty.

Can a school, nursery or person providing child care smack my child?

It is illegal for teachers, nursery workers and child care workers to smack another person’s child. If a person is employed privately by a parent, such as a babysitter or nanny, the parent may give permission for that person to smack their child as long as it is reasonable and does not amount to an offence. 

When will smacking become a criminal offence?

A parent can be charged with a criminal offence if they harm their child under the following certain offences:

Determining what charge will be made depends on the harm caused to the child.

The Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales has produced a charging standard in order to help prosecutors to determine the appropriate offence in a case. This guidance has suggested that common assault is where injuries amount to no more than the following:

  • grazes;
  • scratches;
  • abrasions;
  • minor bruising;
  • swellings;
  • reddening of the skin;
  • superficial cuts;
  • a ‘black’ eye.

The charging standard goes on to say that: 

“… there may be cases where the injuries suffered by a victim would usually amount to common assault but due to the presence of serious aggravating features, they could more appropriately be charged as actual bodily harm.” 

One such aggravating feature is whether the victim is a child. Even in such cases however, prosecutors are nonetheless required to bear in mind that: 

“…the definition of assault occasioning actual bodily harm requires the injury to be more than transient and trifling.” 

What is Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)?

The difference between common assault and ABH is the severity of the harm caused, for example:

  • loss, or breaking of tooth or teeth;
  • temporary loss of sensory functions i.e. loss of consciousness;
  • extensive or multiple bruising;
  • a broken nose;
  • minor fractures;
  • minor, but not merely superficial, cuts, that are probably going to require medical treatment, like stitches;
  • psychiatric injury, which is more than emotions like fear or distress.

What is Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)?

GBH and wounding: to legally wound someone both the inner and outer layers of skin must be broken. Examples of such harm are:

  • injury resulting in a permanent disability, or permanent loss of a sensory function;
  • injury which results in more than minor permanent, visible disfigurement; broken or displaced limbs or bones, including fractured skull;
  • compound fractures, broken cheek bone, jaw, ribs, etc.;
  • injuries which cause substantial loss of blood, usually needing a transfusion;
  • injuries resulting in lengthy treatment or incapacity;
  • psychiatric injury – as with ABH, appropriate expert evidence is essential to prove the injury.

What is GBH with Intent?

This is the most serious of the offences and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The offence is committed when a person unlawfully, maliciously and intentionally either:

  • wounds another person; or
  • causes grievous bodily harm to another person.

To find out whether a defendant had intended to cause the GBH is a decision that will be made at court, taking all of the evidence into account.

If you are charged with actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or grievous bodily harm with intent, your case will be heard at court.

What is the guidance of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)?

It can be tempting to think a smack sorts out incidents like disobedience and biting. However, it does nothing to teach your child how you want him or her to behave.

Instead it:

  • gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions;
  • may lead children to hit or bully others;
  • may encourage children to lie or hide feelings to avoid smacking;
  • can make defiant behavior worse, so discipline gets even harder;
  • leads to a resentful and angry child, and damages family relationships if it continues for a long time.

All parents have behaved in ways they regret at times (shouting or smacking). If it happens, say you are sorry, make up and try again. This teaches the child a valuable lesson.

Calls to ban smacking

There is huge pressure from different organisations in the UK to change the law relating to reasonable punishment. Organisations such as the ‘NSPCC’ and ’11 Million’ campaign for a complete ban on reasonable punishment. 

There are concerns that section 58 Children Act 2004 continues to breach Article 19 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to provide children with equal protection under the law on common assault.

A parent can be charged with a criminal offence if they harm their child under certain offences.

How to discipline without smacking

  • Give love and warmth as much as possible
  • Have clear simple rules and limits
  • Be a good role model
  • Praise good behaviour so it will increase
  • Ignore behaviour you don’t want repeated
  • Criticise behaviours, not your child
  • Reward good behaviour with hugs and kisses
  • Distract young children or use humour
  • Allow children some control; joint decisions, choices
  • If a punishment is necessary, the removal of privileges, ‘time out’ or natural consequences are better.