The child discipline law and children’s human rights

April 14, 2009

Beth Wood, EPOCH NZ

Over the weekend we saw the issue of child discipline in the media again, this time with headlines  suggesting that Labour had done a u-turn on the “anti-smacking” bill.  But it turns out that this was not the case.  Mr Goff caused some confusion yesterday when he said that a smack shouldn’t be a criminal offence.  But he amended this by saying that parents should not be followed up and prosecuted for a smack. He later told NZPA that neither his position nor Labour’s policy had changed. He said “I don’t think the law needs to be changed”.  Mr Goff said the bill was working.

Finding a way to give children equal protection in law from assault as adults, setting a standard in law that does not endorse any form of violence to children and at the same time avoiding prosecution of parents for minor assaults has been one of the challenges law drafters and supporters of change have faced. Prosecutions for minor assaults are obviously not in the child or the parents’ interests because of the stress and disruption prosecution would cause.

The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 contained a provision reminding Police that they have discretion not to prosecute when it would not be in the public interest to do so.  Regular reports on Police activity since law change indicate that parents are not being prosecuted for a simple smack.  This provision and guidelines for the Police about its application are sensible solutions to the challenge.

However, the “risk of criminalisation” cry has sometimes been a mask to disguise the more vexing issue, the fact that some adults think they have a right to smack and hit children, perhaps because they believe it’s a good thing to do, but often because they regard them as “theirs”, human beings that they own.

Mr Cullen summed up the fallacy of this argument succinctly when he told media recently that the law change did not impact on personal freedom.  He said “Freedom is the right to be who you are, providing it doesn’t impinge upon the right of people to be who they are. That’s not the right to beat up kids.”

Children are people too with human rights.   In the case of child discipline this means the right to live in a country where politicians and other leaders do not endorse outmoded laws and practices.  I find it reassuring that when I talk to people about the law change and the upcoming referendum they often say “Come on New Zealand, get over it, and move on”.

Beth Wood

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

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