Belting verdict angers children’s groups

Sheriff’s decision comes after boy tells court ‘it was my fault’

By Stephen Stewart

THE debate over the use of corporal punishment was re-ignited yesterday following a sheriff’s ruling that a man who hit a 13-year-old child with a leather belt was using “reasonable chastisement”.

Children’s charities and human rights groups called for more changes in the law after the verdict was announced, but others welcomed the decision and said each case must be decided on its merits.

Stirling Sheriff Court heard that the incident would have been an assault had the new Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act been on the statute books at the time of the incident last August. Section 51 of the act specifically bans the use of “implements” in the chastisement of children.

The case against Angus Mackie, 37, was brought under common law, which states that any force used in chastising a child must be moderate and not inspired by vindictiveness.

Yesterday’s verdict concluded a case which ran to four days of evidence and legal argument, was heard over more than two months, and after the boy himself, now 14, pleaded with the court that Mr Mackie was innocent.

Shortly before the incident, the teenager, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had been arrested for breaking into a post office but the boy said that since Mr Mackie hit him, he had given up smoking cannabis, attended a council day unit, and was no longer in trouble with the police.

The court heard that Mr Mackie, from Stirling, strapped the boy on his bare leg last August, causing red weals which were so slight they had gone by that night. During the case, an expert in forensic medicine said Mr Mackie could only have used “very minimal force”.

However, the marks had been spotted by a social worker called to deal with the truanting boy, and Mr Mackie was referred to the police.

On the first day of the trial, in June, the boy told the court: “The whole thing lasted about five seconds. It was sore at the time, and I was crying, but it wasn’t sore later.

“It was my fault. I was getting into trouble, getting lifted by the police and doing loads of bad things. On this morning, it was just his anger building up because I was getting into trouble.”

Experts called by both prosecution and defence agreed that the boy’s injuries were minor. John Rankin, a police surgeon, said he found no underlying injury or damage to tissue, and no treatment was required.

But a spokeswoman for Children 1st condemned the use of corporal punishment. She said: “We believe that children and young people should have the same rights to protection from assault under the law as adults do.

“As part of the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, we campaigned for and still support a total ban on hitting children. We also support the promotion of greater information on effective non-violent means of discipline.”

John Scott, chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, called for a review of the legal definition of chastisement.

He said: “This case is a good example of why the Scottish Executive should have made the law clearer by saying that people are just not allowed to hit a child.

“The confusion that has arisen is understandable. The only way to guarantee that people don’t hit children, is by simply saying that they cannot do it at all.

“In Sweden, adults are not allowed to hit children at all. By introducing a ban on the use of implements in the chastisement of children, the executive has just made the law less clear.”

However, Brian Monteith, the Scottish Tory MSP, welcomed the decision.

Mr Monteith, a father-of-two said: “Each case should be judged on its merits and while all parents regret the use of force, there can be extenuating circumstances when moderate force might be allowed.”

The Scottish Executive refused to comment on specific cases, but said the new act took into account specific details such as the reason for punishment, the duration and frequency of chastisement, and the child’s age.