Anne Davis, a child-minder in Sutton, Surrey, was upheld by magistrates in an appeal against a decision by the local authority to remove her from the child- minding register because she refused to undertake not to smack children.
The decision conflicts with legislation that outlaws physical discipline of children in local authority schools and children's homes. Charles Waddicor, Sutton's director of housing and social services, said the ruling threw the law into confusion.
'There is an anomaly developing whereby the law says that it is all right to hit, slap, smack or shake young children under five but not all right to slap, smack or shake children at school,' he said.
But Roger Quinton, chairman of the bench, said the council's position that Ms Davis should be excluded because smacking breached Department of Health guidelines was untenable. 'Our common sense leads us to believe that there must be situations when a child-minder registered by the local authority will smack a minded child.'
The case was being watched by local authorities around the country who have implemented the Department of Health guidelines. Physical discipline was banned in schools in 1986 and in children's homes in 1990 as part of the Children Act.
Ms Davis said after the hearing that the decision was a 'victory for traditional wisdom and values. It also shows that the practical and realistic approach taken by the vast majority of parents has been legally accepted as valid and workable in preference to the academic treatment of it.'
The verdict is likely to dismay child-protection groups who believe that smacking, even by parents, is to be discouraged. A statement from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said the law should not condone smacking.
Allan Levy, QC, who chaired the 'pin-down' inquiry into systematic abuse in Staffordshire children's homes in 1990, said: 'My own experience of child abuse cases is that it begins with minor physical actions and escalates when nothing happens.'
But Professor Richard Lynn, of the University of Ulster, who appeared for Ms Davis at Sutton magistrates' court, maintained that smacking was part of the process whereby children discovered the difference between right and wrong. 'For some children physical discipline is an important part of that process. From time to time the most effective way of controlling a child is a light smack.'
The verdict was welcomed by Anne Formann, 34, whose four-year-old son Luke is cared for by Ms Davis. She said she had given permission for Luke to be smacked. 'If he is naughty he will be able to be punished legally. I think it is common sense that has won through.'
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