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On this Day: 40 Years of Prohibition on Disciplinary Corporal Punishment of Children in Sweden

Lag om ändring i föräldrabalken [Law on Changes to the Parental Code] Svensk författningssamling [SFS] 1979 no. 122, available in Svensk författningssamling, //lccn.loc.gov/40033946. Photo by Kelly McKenna.

Given the Law Library’s abundance of resources, I like to scroll through old law books and look at what laws passed, or entered into force on that date in any given year. On this day, July 1, 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to explicitly prohibit disciplinary corporal punishment of children by their parents. (Lag om ändring i föräldrabalken [Law on Changes to the Parental Code] SFS 1979 no. 122.)

Years earlier, in 1958, Sweden had prohibited corporal punishment as a form of disciplinary action in Swedish public schools, preschools, after care institutions, and the like. That legislation was inspired by Norwegian law.

Since 1979, all corporal punishment of children has thus been forbidden in Sweden. This means that corporal punishment is viewed as criminal assault, depending on the severity of the actions there is no exception (defense) of parental discipline. The explicit exception for “aga” (disciplinary violence) was removed from the Criminal Code in 1957.

The explicit purpose of the revised language was to make it clear that any action taken against a child, that would constitute an assault against an adult, would likewise be an assault against a child, and thus illegal. (Compare prop. 1978/79:67 s. 31 f. )

History and Timeline of the Prohibition on Disciplinary Corporal Punishment of Children in Sweden

14 kap. 16 § Strafflagen [Penal Act](SFS 1864:11), available in Svensk författningssamling, //lccn.loc.gov/40033946. Photo by Kelly McKenna.

  • 1864 – A new Penal Act (Strafflagen) passed and corporal punishment of children by their parents was expected, and indeed required, when the child had committed a crime and had not otherwise attained the age of criminal responsibility (i.e. was younger than 15)
    (5 kap. 1 § Strafflagen [Penal Act] 1864 no. 11.) At this time, disciplinary actions performed by a person (generally the father) against people who were under his command were considered a right (rätt att aga). This included disciplinary reprimands of wives, children, as well as women and men who worked at your farm (and thereby were part of your household unit). Such disciplinary violence was explicitly exempt from liability under the Penal Code. (14 kap. 16 § Strafflagen.)
  • 1902 – The specific duty to discipline your child with the use of corporal punishment discipline was removed.
    (5 kap. 1 § Strafflagen.)
  • 1949 – A Parental Code passed, requiring that parents discipline their children as they see fit. (6 kap. 3 § Föräldrabalken 1949:381.)
  • 1957 – The explicit liability exception in the Penal Code for actions that constituted “aga” (disciplinary violence) was removed. By eliminating the provision, corporal punishment of children was no longer automatically excused.

    Lag om ändrad lydelse av 6 kap. 3 § och 15 kap. 14 § föräldrabalken [Law on Changes to the Parental Code of 6 ch. 3§ and 15 ch. 14 § Parental Code] Svensk författningssamling [SFS] 1966 no 308, available in Svensk författningssamling, //lccn.loc.gov/40033946. Photo by Kelly McKenna.

     Prosecutors who had previously been of the opinion that only the most egregious cases of corporal punishment of children could be prosecuted now had to make a determination of whether the discipline constituted assault. (Prop. 1957:170.) By this time, head of households did not have a right to corporally discipline farm workers who lived on their farm but parents still had a right to discipline (tukta) their children and teachers had the same right to discipline their pupils.
  • 1966 – The Parental Code (SFS 1966:308) was revised to mandate that parents must keep their children under “erfoderlig uppsikt” (necessary supervision) – i.e. the code no longer required that they discipline them. However, Swedes in general were confused over what this meant and many believed that the language included a duty to discipline their children using physical force.
  • 1979 – A specific prohibition on corporal punishment of children was included in the Parental Act (SFS 1979:122).

Text of the 1979 provision (6 kap. 3 § Föräldrabalken [FB], translation by author):

Guardians must perform such supervision over the child that  is needed in consideration of the child’s age and other circumstances.

The child must not be subjected to physical punishment or other demeaning treatment.

What kind of corporal punishment was prohibited by the 1979 provision?

In short, all. The legislative text explicitly exemplified hitting a child’s hand to prevent it from touching something (SOU 1978:10 at 29), and meant that any such violence “was inappropriate and that such means of discipline could not be used.” However, such violence is not criminalized under the Swedish Criminal Code as assault requires that there is a either “bodily injury, illness, or pain” (3 kap. 5 § Brottsbalken(BrB) [Criminal Code].) For example, hitting someone with an open hand in the face is considered a minor offense.

The legislator, who wanted to protect children from physical harm, discussed multiple approaches, including informational campaigns via the media and the pediatricians offices before settling on the explicit prohibition language (SOU 1978:10 Barnens rätt 1. Om Förbud mot aga, at 21-22 ).

Case Law 

Isolated Instance of Corporal Discipline = Minor Offense

In 2003, the Swedish Supreme Court (NJA 2003 s. 537) declared that one isolated instance of corporal punishment that only caused minor harm to the child is considered a “ringa brott” (minor offense) and thus not subject to imprisonment, and can only be punished with monetary day-fines (compare 3 kap. 5 § BrB). In the specific case, the mother, angry that the child had repeatedly misbehaved in school, hit him with a wooden spoon eight times.

In 2017, the Swedish Supreme Court (NJA 2017 s. 1129) again reviewed the boundaries between what is considered misshandel (assault) and ringa misshandel (assault - minor offense) in relation to disciplinary violence against children.  Following the case in 2003, the legislator had included new aggravating circumstances in the criminal provision (29 kap. 2 §BrB) that were meant to guide judges when determining whether the act was a minor offense or a crime “in the normal degree.” 29 kap. 2 § 8 BrB, provides that actions “intended to harm the confidence and trust of a child in its relationship with a family member” are aggravating. The court found that the language used by the legislator meant that violence against children was now further prohibited and the fact that it was directed at children, could already at the initial stage influence the severity of the crime. However, the court found that one isolated instance of hitting a child with a belt did not, even together with the new provision, qualify as assault, but as assault in the lesser degree.

Repeated Disciplinary Violence – Defenses

As recently as in February of this year, a Swedish resident received a straffrabatt (mitigated sentence) and was sentenced to time served, because the courts determined that she was not aware that disciplinary violence against children was unlawful in Sweden. In that case, the court found that there were extraordinary circumstances surrounding her ability to find out that the act was criminalized as she was illiterate and had immigrated from a part of the world where corporal punishment of children was common.

Is it a Crime Also Outside of Sweden?

Yes, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has said that withdrawing parental rights in response to continuous caning (beating the child with a cane) does not violate article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Inhumane and degrading treatment of children is explicitly prohibited in article 3 of the ECHR. In 1998, the ECtHR found that corporal punishment by a parent violated that article. The Council of Europe provides an overview of the general framework and the ECtHR’s case law on corporal punishment of children on its website.

Other sources on Children and Corporal Punishment:
The Punishment of Rebellious Children and Witches

If you are interested in the Law Library’s Swedish law collection please consult my blog post on the topic, or the Library of Congress overview of the Swedish collection.

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