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Physical punishment

Under the common law, parents and other adults who exercise parental control have the right to administer moderate and reasonable physical punishment to children in their care (although it is not clear if adults who are merely in temporary control of a child, such as baby sitters, are included) [see, for example, Police v G, DM [2016] SASC 39]. However, excessive force may be regarded as assault, which is both a criminal offence and a civil wrong, giving the child the right to compensation for pain and any medical or other expenses incurred as a result.

The relationship between an adult and the child (for example, parent and child or teacher and child) is only one factor in deciding whether punishment is moderate and reasonable. Much depends on the circumstances of the case and the prevailing community standards, although relevant factors are:

  • the age of the child. The child must be old enough to benefit from correction and the punishment must be reasonable for a child of that age. For example, it has been held by a court that a parent is not lawfully entitled to administer to a girl of 19 months any physical punishment except of the very lightest description - a slight slap at most;
  • the size, health and, perhaps, the sex of the child;
  • the seriousness of the child's offence;
  • the instrument of correction. Canes have been held lawful in the past, but in the present day, caning or any use of an instrument may be held unlawful;
  • where the blow is administered. Blows to the face or other vulnerable parts of the body are very probably unlawful.
  • the force and number of the blows; and
  • the severity of the blows. Injuries requiring medical attention will normally suggest illegal behaviour.

It has also been held by the English Court of Appeal that, even where punishment is inflicted by a parent, the standard to be applied is that of the community generally and not that of the particular parents or family, or of any religious, ethnic or other group. For punishment by a teacher, see Education.

For more detailed information about physical punishment and related issues, see AIFS' Corporal Punishment- Key Issues Resource Sheet.

Physical punishment  :  Last Revised: Fri Nov 23rd 2018
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