The new measures, which effectively amount to a ban on slapping children, were signed into law by Children’s Minister James Reilly at midnight last night after advocacy group and UN pressure to ensure the rights of children are protected.
Under previous laws dating back more than a century, a parent or adult looking after children could use the ‘reasonable chastisement’ rule as a defence for hitting a child — an issue that has repeatedly been the subject of controversy in schools, homes and under-age sports grounds.
However, from today this legal defence has been removed from the statute meaning any such physical attack on a child will now be punishable under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 in the same way as any assault on an adult, or the Cruelty Against Children Act 2001.
The development is contained in an amendment to the Children’s First Bill which was first flagged by Independent senator Jillian van Turnhout and backed by Dr Reilly during committee stage for the law last September.
While it has previously led to claims of a nanny state culture taking hold, the move — which comes just weeks before Ireland is due before a UN body to discuss developments in child protection for just the third time in the State’s history on January 14 — has been widely welcomed by advocacy groups which say it has removed an “invisible” suggestion that children have to suffer assaults in silence.
In a statement confirming the move last night, Dr Reilly said the “removal of the common law defence” will send “a strong message which will lead to a cultural change across Irish society that corporal punishment is wrong”.
He said the legal change “represents a significant advancement as regards the protection and rights of children” and will “reinforce the developing discipline strategies in the upbringing of children which reject the use of corporal punishment”.
The move was widely backed by advocacy groups last night. It was welcomed earlier this year by the UN secretary general on violence against children, Marta Santos Pais, as a vital step to ensure “no form of violence against children is acceptable”.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward said the step is “one of the most important” to take place under the current Government and that it is solely about “protecting children”.
The campaigner said the move is in no way a “nanny state” response to what goes on within families, saying it is instead about “equality before the law” as “before now you could not strike an adult, your sister or brother, but you could hit a child”.
However, Ms Ward sounded a note of caution by adding that research completed by her own group in 2013 found that up to 78% of parents surveyed did not not know how to cope with an unruly child without hitting or slapping them.
She said if the Government wants the new law to fully take hold, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or Tusla should consider publishing a public document outlining how to discipline a child without resorting to physical punishment.
It is understood that while the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence has rarely been used in courts, there is a widespread belief among legal officials this is because cases which should have gone to court have not as it was felt they may not be won.
One case of a serious nature where the defendant is using this defence is currently before the courts, but will not be affected by the law change as it occurred before the Government move was made.
Ms van Turnhoutsaid the development means “there is no longer an invisible line between hitting an adult and hitting a child”.