LibLink: Alex Cole-Hamilton: There is no such thing as “justifiable assault”

In his regular column for Edinburgh’s Evening News, Alex Cole-Hamilton outlines why he has sponsored a Bill to ban physical punishment of children:

People talk about it being a ban on smacking, but all it really seeks to do is to extend the same protections to children that adults currently enjoy – the fundamental right to live a life without fear of violence. There is no law in Scotland which states you have the right to hit your child, but parents are enabled to do through the legal defence of ‘justifiable assault’. People hit their kids and the law isn’t interested, only because they could claim the assault was justified on the grounds of punishment.

Seems ok? Not when I tell you that a similar defence used to apply to the hitting of women and of servants but we happily repealed those eons ago. This all boils down to the fact that children are now the only sentient creature in Scottish society you can strike in anger with legal impunity. That puts us out of kilter with international human rights treaties. We’re signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which demands we protect children from physical punishment, and as such in every examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, it’s a big red cross on our report card.

And he looks at some of the arguments used by opponents:

“This is nanny state gone mad and will see legions of decent parents marched through the courts.” This isn’t about criminalising parents, it’s about culture change. There has been no detectable uptick in prosecutions of parents in the countries where this is operating already, parents just make different decisions as to how to discipline their kids.

“If my child were to put its hand in a fire or run into traffic, I need to be able stop them with a smack.” There has been no detectable uptick in the number of kids running into traffic or putting their hands in fires in Germany, or Belgium, or Scandanavia for that matter. Parents just make different choices on how to warn their kids.

You can read the whole article here.

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  • Richard Underhill 29th Sep '18 - 3:22pm

    My mother used to hit us on the backside with a hairbrush.
    She never said ‘Wait till your father gets home.’ My father used to say to other parents that this stopped when we became taller and able to stand up for ourselves.
    My opinion was merely that she had come to the end of her tether.
    I have never accepted the concept of punishment, but justify imprisonment on the grounds of protecting the public from violent offenders.

  • Well done Alex. Long overdue.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '18 - 5:24pm

    I thought the law covers this. Child abuse is an outrage and illegal.

    I am not a parent. I was a child, my father wacked me a few once in a while. He was wrong to. The notion that he should have been prosecuted does seem excessive and utterly inconsistent with this party having an increasing notion of withdrawing from legal outrage at such horrible things as pimping and low level drug dealing.

    We need common sense.

  • I think it’s a good idea in principle, but I’m less certain about the actuality of prosecutions. Neither of my parents went in for smacking and as a parent I wouldn’t either. But a lot do and I’m not sure dragging them through the legal system will do a great deal of good.
    I think this is because it’s fashionable to see some of these things as “victimless crimes”, when the reality is that the numerous trials of gangs using drugs and violence to control youngsters within what are euphemistically described as trades shows them to be anything but victimless.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Sep '18 - 11:04pm


    That’s correct, but it is not logical or moral, to think a child with a clip round the ear, could prosecute a parent because of his hurt, but an unborn child of twenty two weeks aborted outside of the rules, has no rights and the mother has them only.

    Therefore, as a society or party, understanding for the mother to be if she aborts the potential child, but none for the actual current mother who gives a child who behaves terribly, a smack. Parent to be lots of rights, unborn child zero. Parent now, less rights, child, lots.

    Liberalism could be all about balance, though it might be connected to being moderate, which only now it seems, me , Sir Vince and a few of us crave.

  • Some parents use smacking as a way of relieving their own feelings. This is possibly understandable but that doesn’t make it acceptable. However all parents of small children will acknowledge that they sometimes need a quick way to get the child to associate seriously dangerous behaviour with unpleasant results. That is after all one of the ways that children learn not to do these things without being maimed, or worse still killed in the process. This specific issue of being taught about danger simply does not apply in the case of adults – if they choose to maim or kill themselves that’s their business.

    A visibly upset parent verbally rounding on them has the desired effect for most, but by no means all, children most, but by no means all of the time. Unfortunately the parents can’t tell whether the lesson has been sufficient until the next time. In all but the most dangerous instances the child will probably survive unscathed multiple times. After the first time verbal punishment has already been demonstrated to be ineffective and they have learned that they can get away with their dangerous behaviour.

    So the question is whether all of this justifies permitting the occasional quick smack on the backside to remain legal? Not beating, not child abuse – the law already deals with these things – just a very occasional smack in response to seriously dangerous behaviour.

    One further question to consider is whether we risk causing more harm to the child by bringing the full weight of the law to bear on a loving and loved parent over an incident that the child itself may not even consciously recall.

  • @Alan Levy – of all the instances I have ever witnessed of an adult hitting a child, it was NEVER to save the child from immediate danger.

    I strongly believe that neither the child or society as a whole benefits from teaching from an early age that the way to enforce your will on others is to use physical force.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Sep '18 - 3:37pm


    Absolute sense, but the party lacks it if it sounds too one sided to the point of extreme, of all the things an adult can do to a child, a clip round the ear is not as say, Rotherham, where our party were and are able to speak out compared to on some issues, but it is the pushme pullyou that irritates, in todays discourse.

    We should of course dwell on your point about violence, and thus be utterly strict on violent crime, the comments on punishment from the mainstream intelligent Richard above, totally inexplicable, punishment for wickedness, as with knowing when not to call smacking wickedness, is the Liberal Harm Principle of the greatest liberal or Liberal, Mill.

  • Nick Baird – I too have seen parents abusing their children. I have also been a parent of young children and faced this problem myself and I have seen other parents in the same situation. The key issue for us here is what a loving, humane parent judges to be best for their child, even if it isn’t always 100% consistent with our own ethical or moral agenda. I’m not advocating smacking children, as a routine disciplinary measure, I merely pose the question whether banning it under all circumstances really is such a wise thing to do.

    To quote Isaac Asimov, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Oct '18 - 1:18pm

    There was a saying when I was young, “Spare the rod and spoil the Child.” a lot has changed over the years, I notice my own granddaughter, and when her counting gets to three, she knows her chances are now at an end. Bed, seems to be the next step, that’s her way. It works, naughty step, on the stairs and bed for the worst. It is wrong to control a child by physical punishment, fear is not the answer.

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Oct '18 - 1:51pm

    It is a tricky area; a fine might be justifiable if it helps parent to think twice. In some families it is probably okay if light. Certainly obtaining blood should be punished and leaving a mark. If the child phones a help line perhaps enquiries could be started. Photographic evidence is essential.

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