Private schools 'can beat pupils': European Court of Human Rights expresses misgivings on corporal punishment

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PRIVATE SCHOOLS have the right to administer limited corporal punishment to their pupils, the European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday. But the nine judges expressed 'misgivings' about this type of beating and said it could fall foul of the human rights convention if children suffered long-lasting effects.

The judgment came in a case brought by Wendy Costello-Roberts, whose seven-year-old son, Jeremy, was 'slippered' at his boarding school in Barnstaple, Devon, in 1985.

Jeremy, now 15, was punished by the school for talking in the corridor on a number of occasions and for being late to bed. Three days after being told that he would be beaten, the boy was hit on his buttocks with a rubber- soled gym shoe by the headteacher.

Incensed by the penalty, Mrs Costello-Roberts, complained that the treatment was 'degrading' and therefore breached article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the court dismissed her claims by the slenderest of majorities - five to four - saying that the beating was not severe enough to fall foul of the convention. Mrs Costello-Roberts had provided no evidence showing her son had suffered 'severe or long-lasting effects . . . While the court had certain misgivings about the automatic nature of the punishment and the three-day wait before its imposition, it considered that (the) minimum level of severity not to have been attained in this case'.

The judges, however, were conspicuously vague about where the 'minimum level' might lie. Lawyers say it would not necessarily be the same for parents and teachers, but that in some circumstances, mothers and fathers could cross the line, putting themselves in breach of article 3. The British judge, Sir John Freeland, said the Costello-Roberts case was 'at or near the borderline' of what was acceptable. The court unanimously dismissed allegations that the punishment contravened article 8, which guarantees the right to a private life, and article 13 giving the right to an 'effective remedy' for any breaches of the convention.

Afterwards, Mrs Costello-Roberts, who was supported by Epoch, which campaigns to end physical punishment of children, said: 'At the moment the law is extremely fuzzy. If he were at a state school or a children's home it would be illegal. The fact is that it was at a private school and a teacher in a private school can beat a child within an inch of his life, provided the teacher does not do it for personal gain. There is no redress.' She said Jeremy had been 'very traumatised' by the beating.

Under 1987 legislation, corporal punishment is outlawed in state schools and, yesterday, Epoch said it would continue its campaign for similar laws to cover private schools. The group is pressing the House of Lords to amend the Education Bill.

The Independent Schools Information Service said only five private schools still administered corporal punishment. In these, Isis insisted that pupils were beaten only with parental consent. But Martin Rosenbaum, who advised Mrs Costello-Roberts, said there were at least 20 private schools using corporal


Law report, page 26