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Separated Parents – Smacking Children and Parental Responsibility

The debate about whether or not it is right for a parent to smack their child has once again hit the headlines following Mary Berry’s recent comment that she used to smack her children with a wooden spatula.

The argument will no doubt rage over the news/blogs and local radio stations but this issue has come up quite a few times in my role as a family solicitor when advising separated parents; not the pro’s and con’s of such physical chastisement but whether, following a separation, the other parent can do anything to stop the other from smacking their child.

At the moment, there is no criminal law preventing a parent from smacking their child so long as it does not go over the line of “reasonable punishment”. Children are afforded some protection under The Children’s Act 2004 which does make it illegal to hit a child if it causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches and this is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

Generally however, there is very little a parent can do if he or she disagrees with the other parents choice to smack.

I have managed to secure a parents agreement in a recital to a court order to refrain from Physical Chastisement of their child but policing this is difficult, if not impossible and has the potential to place a young child in the untenable position of being questioned by one of his parents.

Each parent with Parental Responsibility (PR) has certain responsibilities, duties and obligations towards their child. It also means that when their child is being care for by them whether because they are having contact or living with them, then the decisions about how to care for that chid, including how to deliver appropriate discipline, are down to them. Each parent can therefore exercise their own decisions unilaterally.

A mother who has given birth to a child will automatically have PR whereas a father can acquire it in a few ways including:

  • Through marriage to the mother of his child
  • By being registered as the father on a child’s birth certificate after 1 December 2003
  • By having a PR agreement wit the mother
  • Through a court order

Ideally, decisions on how their children should be disciplined would be agreed following a separation, if not before so that their children aren’t getting mixed messages and the parents become further alienated.

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