Wednesday 11th November, 2015
The enactment of the Children First Bill meets an important legislative commitment in the Programme for Government to, for the first time, put key elements of the Children First Guidance on a statutory footing.
As passed by this House, the Bill contained three main elements relating to child welfare and protection and following a Government amendment in Seanad Éireann the Children First Bill also includes a provision to abolish the common law defence of reasonable chastisement.
The three original elements of the Bill are as follows:
This Bill represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection measures already in place and will help to ensure that child protection concerns are brought to the attention of the Child and Family Agency, and that the Agency gets the information and cooperation that it requires, in order to deal with any child welfare or protection concerns.
The provision to abolish the common law defence of reasonable chastisement has been included in the Children First Bill by way of a Government amendment in Seanad Eireann in response to a proposal made by Senator Jillian Van Turnhout. I strongly commend the Senator for her initiative and the members of that House for their strong endorsement of this measure.
This development was consistent with a commitment that the Government gave earlier in the year to the Council of Europe.
Consideration of the removal of the common law defence is not a new issue. In fact it has considerable history – having been referenced by the Law Reform Commission in its Report of 1994 arising from an examination of the law concerning non-fatal offences against the person.
Nor is corporal punishment a uniquely Irish issue, as international human rights bodies continue to highlight shortcomings in the legal frameworks in various parts of the world – both in developed and in developing countries – to afford the fullest protection to children against violence.
Corporal punishment in the home is subject to the provisions of certain laws. Specifically, Section 2 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997 (which deals with the assault of any person) and Section 246 of the Children Act, 2001 (which deals with cruelty to children). However, it is currently the case that a common law defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ could be raised in the case of parents, or persons acting in loco parentis (other than teachers), where the question of a prosecution arises.
The legislative step is not about a challenge to legitimate parental authority; there is no new offence being created. Rather, it is fundamentally a human rights issue concerning the dignity and welfare of children. It is about giving children nothing more than the same unqualified protection under the law of assault that is available to all other citizens.
The initiative to abolish reasonable chastisement should be seen in a wider context of on-going work by the Government to advance the rights of, and protections for, children through significant statutory, structural and strategic change. The drive to enhance a prevention and early intervention approach, rather than a crisis intervention approach, to child protection is at the core of our efforts. This important orientation is evident in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and in the Bill before us today. The amendment, while simple in its form, can have a considerable impact into the future both for the good of children, their parents, and wider society.
“The Children First Bill represents an important step forward in children’s rights and protections. It is fundamental to establishing a culture that categorically proclaims that all children in this State are to be protected, and that individuals, professionals and organisations will all play their part in ensuring that this is so.
I thank members of the Oireachtas for their contribution to the passage of this legislation, and I look forward to the cooperation of all society in making Ireland a safer place for our children.”