This week the Police released a practice guide on the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 detailing how they intend to decide whether parents will or will not be prosecuted when they use physical discipline. The changes to the law around disciplining children will come into effect on 22 June 2007, making it technically illegal to use mild physical force for the purposes of correction. However, if the offence is 'inconsequential' the police have discretion whether to prosecute.
The guidelines suggest that even though infrequent smacking may be considered inconsequential, prosecution may still occur after repetitive incidents. Similarly, even 'inconsequential' reports of force must be passed on to the Police family violence co-ordinator under the guidelines. The police have also been careful to point out that the true impact of this law will not be seen until case law develops. This means that until someone is prosecuted under the new section 59, the way the guidelines will be applied cannot be predicated. The changes to section 59 are, as many opponents warned, a leap in the dark.
The release of these guidelines coincides with the findings of a national poll on people's attitudes towards the new law, conducted by Curia research, a market research firm. The results show that 78 percent of parents surveyed will still smack their children to correct their behaviour if they believe it is reasonable to do so. Only 16 percent said that they would not. This suggests that people are going to be willing to break the law and whether they will be punished for doing so will depend on how the police view their actions.
This raises an interesting question; will the vast majority of New Zealanders actually ignore this new legislation long-term or will the law eventually change New Zealanders' perspective on parental discipline? Sweden is an interesting test case because physical punishment against children was banned in 1979, yet parents continued to physically discipline their children. While 34 percent of those born before 1979 indicated they had received physical punishment from their parents, this only dropped to 32 percent for those born during or after 1979. The results of the poll by Curia research tentatively suggest that a similar pattern may emerge in New Zealand, which is the inevitable result of a law that relies on police guidelines and court precedents.