The Yes Vote – NZ Referendum on Child Discipline 2009

police activity since the law change

During the debate about section 59 one of the major objections to the removal of the section 59 Crimes Act 1961 statutory defence was that parents who only occasionally smacked a child lightly would be prosecuted and, if convicted, criminalised. The police discretion provision was inserted in the legislation late in its passage through Parliament to provide reassurance on this matter.

In their regular six-monthly reports police use the terms “smacking”, “minor acts of physical discipline”, and “other child assault”. These terms are not offences in themselves but based on interpretation of data collected by the police where their have been complaints of family violence and the victim is a child. Police staff reviewing reports on the cases categorize them according to the degree of force used, length of the assault, where on the body the child was hit, whether an implement was used in the assault, the circumstances of the assault and whether there is a history of violence in the home. The figures do not include cases where there is significant injury. These were never “legal”.

“Smacking” refers to cases where the assault has been no more than a open handed smack on the bottom or hand and there is no other reason to suspect the child is at risk of other violence. This is the precisely the type of “correction” that those calling for reintroduction of a statutory defence claim should be legal. A review of police reports indicate that the number complaints made in this category is very small. There appears to have been some increase in complaints about use of more heavy handed force and some prosecutions. Other cases are resolved in a range of other ways including referral to CYF, case conferencing and advice to parents. (This information is based on public police reports and personal communication with NZ Police staff).

In the most recent police report (June 2009) the Deputy Commissioner Rob Pope said

“… the review has allowed police to continually monitor how the amendment has impacted on police work:

“We are nearing the end of the two year review period post enactment.

“I am confident in saying that this latest review again shows the amendment has had minimal impact on police activity. It continues to be ‘business as usual’ for us and police continue to use their discretion and common sense in their decision making around child assault events.

“The reviews conducted by police are based on thorough analysis of cases and include feedback from police districts”.

For further analysis of Police statistics see Making sense of Police Statistics.

Key points are that:

  • the new law is not leading to mass criminalisation of good parents
  • it is appropriate that some action is taken where assaults are heavy handed – although not necessarily prosecution
  • to suggest that children who are subjected to heavy handed assaults should not be protected is to suggest that their safety is not a paramount consideration.

Claims have been made that the law is resulting in unwarranted investigations into family lives. The cases used to support these claims cannot be verified because Police and CYF information about them is confidential.

New Zealand’s child discipline law is a good one.
The law supports positive parenting.
The law increases children’s protection from assault.
Please email your MP and ask them to support retention of the current law.

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

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