R (Williamson & Others) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment & Others [2005] UKHL 15

The Claimants (head teachers and parents of pupils in an independent school) applied for a declaration that the extension of EA 1996 s548, which bans corporal punishment, in all schools, was incompatible with their rights to freedom of education and freedom of religion under ECHR.  The Claimants argued that a large body of the Christian community had fundamental beliefs – including a belief that part of the duty of education requires that teachers should be able to stand in the place of parents and use physical corporal punishment where appropriate – and that therefore s548 did not apply where parents expressly delegated their own common law right to discipline their child to a teacher.

The House of Lords held that s548 is valid and not inconsistent with human rights.  The plain purpose of the provision is to prohibit the use of corporal punishment by all teachers in all schools.  The Claimants’ suggested interpretation would defeat this aim by making the prohibition optional at the choice of parents.  There is a difference between freedom to hold a belief and freedom to manifest or express that belief: the latter right is qualified.  The Convention is engaged on the basis that, if parents authorise their child’s school to administer corporal punishment, that is a manifestation of their belief, and s548 does then interfere materially with parental rights under articles 2 and 9.  The interference was however ‘necessary in a democratic society …. for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’  The statutory ban pursued a legitimate aim in protecting and promoting the well-being of children.  The means chosen to achieve this aim were not disproportionate, and Parliament was entitled to act on this as an issue of broad social policy.  Therefore the Claimants’ rights under the Convention had not been violated.

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