Physical punishment and discipline of children: how the law is changing

Explains changes to the law covering the physical punishment and discipline of children, such as smacking.

What is changing

If a parent or carer physically punishes or disciplines their child they can be prosecuted with assault.  Under the current law, depending on what happened, the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ may be available to them.

Physical punishment or physical discipline can take many forms, including  smacking, skelping, spanking and slapping.

The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019 will change the law and remove the “reasonable chastisement” defence from 7 November 2020.

This means that all forms of physical punishment of children will be against the law in Scotland, and children will have with the same legal protection from assault as adults.

The Act does not introduce a new offence. It just removes a defence to the existing offence of assault.

We are required by the Act  to take steps to promote public awareness and understanding about the defence being removed.

What this means in practice

This change in the law will apply to acts of physical punishment or physical discipline carried out after 7 November 2020. 

For acts carried out on or after that date, the defence will not available.   

Support for parents and carers

We know it can be tough being a parent or carer. We also know that 2020 has had unique challenges. 

It’s ok to feel worried about what’s happening.

Lots of support is available.

Our ParentClub website contains tried and tested hints and tips like the ones on coping with being a parent and behaviour.

The ParentClub website also contains the Family Support Directory.  This directory brings together information about organisations benefits and other sources of support for parents and carers, no matter the situation or the stage a child is at.

If talking to someone might help, you can call Children 1st Parentline on 08000 28 22 33.

Or you can chat to someone online at Parentline

These are free services that provide support for families in Scotland.

Restraining children

Restraining a child is about making sure that they are safe and will not come to harm. But this new law is not about that.  It’s about removing the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. 

If you stop your child from coming to harm, you’re protecting them.

For example, if you pull your child out of a busy road, you’re protecting them. 

But if you smack your child afterwards, you’re physically punishing them.

If you see someone physically punishing their child

You can call the police on 101 if you think a crime has been committed.

You can also contact your local council if you are concerned about harm to a child from physical punishment.

Another option is for you to contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 to report a crime anonymously. They'll pass the information about the crime to the police.

Or, as has always been the case, you can call 999 if a child or young person is in immediate danger.

What we are doing to get ready for the change in the law

We have set up an Implementation Group which is considering what is needed to implement this new law. 

The Group’s work includes:

  • whether guidance is needed for the public on reporting incidents
  • whether additional parenting support is needed and how this could be provided
  • how the impact of the legislation can be monitored

As part of this Group’s work, we have worked closely with police, social work, children’s charities and other organisations to help ensure they are ready for the change in the law.

We have also

Why the law is being changed

The removal of the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence is part of the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019.

The Bill which became that Act was introduced to the Scottish Parliament by John Finnie MSP.

The accompanying documents for the Bill contain further information about its background. 

We support the removal of the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence.  This is because of the body of evidence showing that physical punishment is not in the best interests of children. Physical punishment is harmful, and it is not effective.

We also know that some people have found the current law confusing and unclear.

In fact, Scotland is the first part of the UK to pass a law like this.

We want Scotland to be the best place in the world for children to grow up.  Removing the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence contributes to that aim.

The Welsh Assembly passed legislation in early 2020 which will make a similar change to the law in Wales. 

And other countries have passed legislation with similar effect, including Ireland and New Zealand.

So a wider change is happening, and Scotland is part of this.

Promotional materials

We have produced promotional materials to support the introduction of the Act

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