The law on smacking children in England and Northern Ireland has been described as "unjust and dangerously vague" by paediatricians who are urging for a law change.

Wales made any type of corporal punishment, including smacking, hitting, slapping and shaking, illegal in March 2022, while Scotland had already introduced a similar ban in November 2020.

However, in England and Northern Ireland, the current law creates "grey areas" the Royal College of of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said.

According to the Child Law Advice website, it says: "It is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’. This defence is laid down in section 58 Children Act 2004, but it is not defined in this legislation. 

Oxford Mail: Smacking has already been banned fully in Wales and ScotlandSmacking has already been banned fully in Wales and Scotland (Image: Rebecca Naden/PA Wire)

"Whether a ‘smack’ amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case, taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack.

"There are strict guidelines covering the use of reasonable punishment and it will not be possible to rely on the defence if you use severe physical punishment on your child which amounts to wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or child cruelty."

Paediatricians urge for change in law on smacking

The RCPCH said amendments to the Children Act 2004 for England and the Law Reform Order 2006 for Northern Ireland “to remove the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence from all UK law are long overdue”.

Professor Andrew Rowland, a consultant paediatrician and RCPCH officer for child protection, said: “The laws around physical punishment as they stand are unjust and dangerously vague.

“They create a grey area in which some forms of physical punishment may be lawful, and some are not.”

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He added that the “vague nature of the laws make it extremely challenging” to talk to families about what exactly it constitutes.

Meanwhile, the NSPCC’s Joanna Barrett said children in England and Northern Ireland “continue to be exposed to a legal loophole that can undermine their basic right to protection under the guise of ‘reasonable chastisement’”.

She added: “As this timely report from child health experts at RCPCH shows, hitting a child can have harmful and lasting consequences.

“We know from Childline that physical punishment can impact a child’s mental and emotional health and damage the relationship between parent and child.