The Case of A v. UK


23 September 1998

In September 1998, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that the beating of a young English boy by his stepfather constituted "inhuman or degrading punishment", in breach of the European Human Rights Convention, and that current UK domestic law failed to provide adequate protection. This judgment is binding on the 40-plus European states which have ratified the Convention.

A young English boy, known as ‘A’ to protect his anonymity, made an application to the European human rights machinery in Strasbourg (the European Commission and Court of Human Rights - since amalgamated into a single institution, the European Court of Human Rights). The boy had been beaten repeatedly by his stepfather with a garden cane. The stepfather was prosecuted in an English court, but used the common law defence of "reasonable chastisement" and was found not guilty by the jury.

During the trial the judge directed the jury:

"If a man deliberately and unjustifiably hits another and causes some bodily injury, bruising or swelling will do, he is guilty of actual bodily harm. What does unjustifiably mean in the context of this case? It is a perfectly good defence that the alleged assault was merely the correcting of a child by its parent, in this case the stepfather, provided that the correction be moderate in the manner, the instrument and the quantity of it. Or, put another way, reasonable. It is not for the defendant to provide it was lawful correction. It is for the prosecution to prove it was not. This case is not about whether you should punish a very difficult boy. It is about whether what was done here was reasonable or not and you must judge that..."

In 1997 the European Commission on Human Rights found unanimously that A’s rights had been breached. The Commission referred the case to the Court. After a hearing, in September 1998 the European Court of Human Rights released its judgment, unanimously finding that the punishment of the boy amounted to "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (prohibited under article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention) and that UK law had failed to provide adequate protection:

"The Court considers that the obligation on the High Contracting Parties under Article 1 of the Convention to secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention, taken together with Article 3, requires States to take measures designed to ensure that individuals within their jurisdiction are not subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including such ill-treatment administered by private individuals... Children and other vulnerable individuals, in particular, are entitled to State protection, in the form of effective deterrence, against such serious breaches of personal integrity."

The Court referred to Articles 19 and 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It ordered the Government to pay the boy £10,000 damages and his legal costs.

Having found a breach of article 3, the European Court, following its usual practice, did not go on to consider the boy’s claim that the beating had also breached his right to physical integrity (article 8) and to protection without discrimination (article 14).

As a result of the judgment, the UK Government announced that it would reform its law to give children better protection and would have a public consultation on the way forward. Consultations have been carried out in England, Wales and Scotland, but no proposals announced. In Northern Ireland, a consultation was due to be launched in June 2001. For details, see

The full judgment can be found at the European Court of Human Rights website. To find this case, go to and select 'Access HUDOC'. This takes you to the case law search page. Select 'Judgments' at the top, and in the field 'Application Number' enter 25599/94. Press 'Search' and you will be provided with a direct link to the judgment.

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