Tamasin Knight: Equal protection from assault—time to follow Scotland’s lead

On Saturday 7th November 2020, children in Scotland gained the same legal protection from physical assault as adults. With the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act coming into force, all physical punishment of children is now unlawful. This is a significant moment for children’s rights, and in improving the health and wellbeing of the population of Scotland.

Similar legislation is due to come into force in Wales in 2022—but there are no current plans to give children in England or Northern Ireland this same protection. [1]

It isn’t right that a child living in the north of England is denied the rights and protection that a child living a few miles north over the border in Scotland now enjoys. Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the right of the child to be protected from all forms of violence. Violence exists on a continuum; and it’s important to call things what they are—when we talk of “smacking” what we actually mean is hitting children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is clear that any form of physical punishment is a breach of children’s human rights. [2]

The evidence regarding the harmful effects of using physical pain to discipline children is strong and consistent—physical punishment can damage children’s health and wellbeing. [3] It is linked with a range of adverse outcomes including increased childhood aggression and antisocial behaviour, and with depression and anxiety. If we want to give children the best start in life they need to be protected from experiencing physical punishment. It is perhaps no surprise then that the Equal Protection from Assault Bill (now Act) was supported by the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, as well as the wider medical community including the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland, the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. [4]

Some adults may remember being hit by their parents and feel this did them no harm. The fact that some children escape harm is not a reason to fail to protect the many that are harmed. This is the same as with other public health issues—as a young child I travelled hundreds of miles in a car with no seat belt—and it did me no harm. Yet some children and babies were harmed because they were not required to be in a child car seat or wear a seat belt. So we now have legislation in order to protect all children travelling in cars. 

The Equal Protection from Assault legislation in Scotland does not create a new criminal offence; rather it removes the defence of “justifiable assault” of a child and so gives children the same protection from physical assault as adults. Most European countries, including Ireland, Germany and Spain, already have legislation giving children equal protection from assault, as do increasing numbers of countries around the world. [5] International evidence shows that in countries where physical punishment of children is prohibited, there have been accelerated declines in its use, and importantly, that these countries have not seen an increase in parental prosecutions for assaults as a result of the change in legislation. [6] Legislation giving equal protection from assault acts as a tool to facilitate cultural change around how we support children.

It is not legally justifiable to hit a partner, elderly relative or adult with learning disabilities. Children—in all parts of the UK—should have the same protection from the law.

Tamasin Knight is a Consultant in Public Health Medicine at NHS Tayside, and Co-Deputy Chair (Policy and Advocacy) of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee.

Competing interests: TK led the Faculty of Public Health’s advocacy for equal protection from assault. She has also advocated for this issue through her role in the BMA, and through her employment at NHS Tayside.


  1. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/anaw/2020/3
  2. https://www.unicef.org/The-right-of-the-child-to-protection-from-corporal-docu.pdf
  3. Heilmann A., Kelly Y., Watt R.G. (2015) Equally Protected?: A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children. London: NSPCC  
  4. https://www.fph.org.uk/media/2674/open-letter-children-equal-protection-from-assault-scotland-2.pdf
  5. https://endcorporalpunishment.org/countdown/
  6. Boyson, R., Thrope L. (2002) Equal Protection for children: An overview of the experience of countries that accord children full legal protection from physical punishment. London: NSPCC