As plenty of readers will already know, New Zealanders are currently taking part in a postal referendum on the issue of whether or not a parent smacking a child under any circumstances should be a crime. I have already voted no.
In 2007 Sue Bradford of the Green Party was successful in having section 59 of the crimes act repealed and replaced with a new version. The former version provided exceptions to the law concerning assault, providing a defence. It permitted parents to use “reasonable force” in the process of correcting their children. This would include, putting a child in her room against her will, administering a smack, placing a child on the “naughty stool” when he didn’t want to go, and so on. These are all uses of force, and are acceptable provided they are done within reason (e.g. hurling a child into her room would not be allowed, and nor would punching a child’s lights out or shoving him into the stool).
This defence was necessary because of the unique relationship that parents have with children. Obviously it would be illegal for me to select a random adult and force him into a bedroom and require him to stay there. That would be assault and unlawful detention, as would making him sit on a stool against his will, and smacking him would just be common assault. So there was a natural and obvious difference between the rights and protections given to another adult and those given to a child. This is reflected in other aspects of law too (e.g. children can’t buy alcohol, vote, consent to sex, get married, drive a car etc). Those who say, for example “if you can’t do it to an adult, why should you be allowed to do it to a child?” are just not thinking seriously about the issues at all.
The new section 59 erases this defence completely. In its place here’s what it now says, as law professor Jim Evans pointed out:
Subsection (1) of the new section 59 allows a parent (or person in the place of a parent) to use force that is reasonable in the circumstances for the purpose of (a) preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person, (b) preventing the child from engaging in a criminal offence, (c) preventing the child from engaging in offensive or disruptive behaviour, or (d) performing the normal daily tasks incidental to good care and parenting.
So far so good. “But wait a minute,” you might think. “part (d) would allow a smack, provided it was part of good parenting.” Up to this point, maybe, but then check subsection (2) of the new version. It reads: “Nothing in subsection (1) justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction.” Subsection (3) adds: “Subsection (2) prevails over subsection (1).”
Subsection (2) is where the problem arises, and it is this section that now prompts people to call for a law change. So here is the issue: Force is allowed as part of “good care and parenting,” provided it’s not corrective. Now wait a minute, isn’t correction part of good care and parenting? Confused yet?
In case it wasn’t unclear enough for parents already, subsection 4 makes it even worse, allowing police discretion when this crime of assault against children is committed, enabling them to decide for themselves which criminal acts to prosecute. So a law that is already now written in doublespeak then gives police sole discretion in deciding whether or not to prosecute, in a case where the defence of reasonable force in correcting a child is no longer available.
Because of the wording of subsection 1, which refers to “good care and parenting,” and because of the wording of subsection 2 (which for many, introduces confusion), referring to “correction” as though it was excluded from good care and parenting opponents of the law change had the referendum question worded as follows, following the lead of the legislation:
“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”
The question was written precisely because of the terms used in the new law, asking new Zealanders, in effect, whether they agreed with the divide that the law proposed between “good care and parenting” in which reasonable force was allowed, and “correction” in which no force at all was allowed.
I think that the facts as spelled out above are relatively simple and easy to ascertain. However, the supporters of Sue Bradford’s law change, as well as supporters of voting “Yes” in the referendum (the two groups partly overlap) have set out on a campaign of misinformation and deception, along with bungled and careless reading of the law.
John Roughan is among the worst offenders. In reply to the claim that the law is unclear or possibly inconsistent, he writes that subsection (1) clearly allows smacking, so there’s no ban on smacking here at all! He further implies that anyone who is worried about subsection (2) is supporting the right to inflict “a cold-blooded assault” intended to leave a defenceless child “in pain and fear.” He claims that there’s absolutely no tension in the law because it’s obvious that “correction” in subsection 2 refers to this type of assault, or to things like “ritual thrashings.”
Fortunately, uncritical opponents of the referendum (like those who reproduced Roughan’s material online as gospel) weren’t the only ones reading. Roughan’s legally uninformed perspective was itself given a good thrashing in the same newspaper by Professor Emeritus of law at Auckland University, Dr Jim Evans (see here). He explains just how the new section 59 is in fact unclear and a poor piece of legislation.
Others (e.g. the propaganda site “yesvote”) have claimed that the wording of the referendum question is loaded because it uses the word “good” and repetitive because it uses the word “correction.” This just represents a failure to understand the specific legal reasons why those terms were chosen. They were chosen because subsection (1) allows force as part of good parenting, and yet subsection (2) forbids force in cases of correction. The referendum question then asks parents if correction using force can indeed be part of good parenting. The only ones claiming that the question is loaded or unclear are those who are motivated to do so, namely those who themselves fully understand the question but who want people to vote “Yes.”
There’s a good list of frequently asked questions over at http://voteno.org.nz/faq.htm
But isn’t “Vote no” a propaganda group too? Sure, in the sense that they are trying to influence opinion. They do, however, draw on the legal facts of the matter, along with evidence that the new law is not making any positive difference in the abuse rates of children, and they also illustrate the negative impact of the law on good parents in New Zealand. If the facts are in poor taste, then that website’s up to no good!
So for what it’s worth, if you haven’t voted yet, vote NO.