Just as the anti-smacking law is back in the news again (if it was ever really out of it), the Daily Telegraph has reported on a British woman, Susan Pope, who was sacked from her job as a nurse at a leading school, after smacking her son in her home. Mrs Pope has now lost her claim for unfair dismissal.

Mrs Pope said it all began when she smacked her 10 year old son on the bottom for speaking to her abusively. Apparently the boy's 15 year old brother, who she says was going through a "rebellious stage", decided to call the police. Mrs Pope and her husband were arrested and questioned before being released without charge.

However, another parent had reported that one of her children had run away from home claiming to have been beaten and locked in his room for long periods. Despite Police saying the matter was not being taken any further, two of her children were placed on the UK's child protection register.

The school then said that the fact that her children were on the register gave them grounds to question whether she was suitable to be in a position of responsibility with vulnerable children. Apparently it was also concerned about the damage to its reputation if other parents learnt about the situation. After an investigation, she was dismissed.

The UK Employment Tribunal rejected her claim that there had not been an adequate investigation into the matter and that the school had not had grounds to dismiss her. Despite more than 25 years experience as a nurse, Mrs Pope is apparently now working in the lingerie section of a local department store.

The Telegraph's report came just a few days after the referendum in New Zealand in which an overwhelming majority of those who voted supported the view that smacking should not be a criminal offence. John Key then said proposals were going to Cabinet which would give parents confidence they were not being criminalised.

Apparently guidance would state that police should not prosecute parents who had lightly smacked their children. Mr Key has however said that despite that, the law is working, and flatly rejected the possibility that National would support a private member's bill that would actually change the law.

This is a controversial topic, to say the least, and one on which most people have strong views one way or the other.

What's interesting from an employment law point of view is that values in this area have changed so much in the last few years that even in a country where smacking is not illegal, and even in a case where the Police investigated and took no further action, the parent's dismissal was found to be fair.

This was because the fact that Mrs Pope's children had (rightly or wrongly) been placed on the child protection register led her employer to question whether she was suitable to be in that role, working with children.

This suggests a similar case here (where allegations of smacking became public knowledge) would be even more likely to go against the parent, given that smacking children is actually unlawful here.

Greg Cain
Greg Cain is an employment lawyer at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts.
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