Episode 41 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 43 - Correction Of A Child


Section 43, correction of a child by force, is another section of the Code, which protects those people who use force in certain limited circumstances. Indeed, the heading for this section and the next section 45 is entitled Protection of Persons In Authority. Section 43, and for that matter s. 45, are not sections protecting peace officers but are designed to protect people who may use force as a result of a relationship he or she may have with the recipient of the force. In the case of s. 43, the relationship is parental or quasi-parental as between a child and a parent or a child and a schoolteacher.

Let’s read the section in full:

Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.

I am sure many of you reading this or listening to this podcast might be a little surprised that this type of protection is in the Code. The idea of hitting a child, be it a parent or worse a teacher, seems out of step with the fundamental values of our society and a throw-back to when age-based relationships were construed as hierarchal and power driven. As we will explore in this podcast, the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged these concerns but in the final analysis the Court found there is a place for such a section in the Code, albeit in limited circumstances. In this podcast, I intend to explore some of these issues, which might give us pause for thought in assessing whether this section is a relic of the past or not.

Section 43 was thoroughly canvassed in the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada case Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General), [2004] 1 SCR 76. The opening statement of the majority decision, authored by Chief Justice McLachlin, speaks volumes on the essence of the defence:

The issue in this case is the constitutionality of Parliament’s decision to carve out a sphere within which children’s parents and teachers may use minor corrective force in some circumstances without facing criminal sanction.

The phrase “minor corrective force” envisioned by the Chief Justice adds clarity to the Court’s characterization of the defence as permitting “reasonable physical correction.” Essentially, it is this formulation of the defence, equating “reasonable” with “minor” force, which saves the section and places the defence in a neat continuum of what is acceptable and was is not acceptable societal behaviour.

I will not go into the niceties of the s. 7 arguments in the case, although I highly recommend those listening to this podcast to read the full decision as the argument presented to the Court takes a fresh approach to the protections found under s. 7 through the perspective of the victims or recipients of the force, in this case children. It is highly illustrative of the unique and persuasive arguments, which are available under the Charter.

The case also highlights the emotive issues involved by viewing the constitutionality of the section through the lens of another legal phrase often conjured in cases involving children: the “best interests of a child.” In what manner this phrase applies in the criminal law context is an interesting discussion, which requires a full blog posting. In any event, as found by the majority, the concept may be a legal principle but at least in 2004, it was not a principle of fundamental justice as required for the application of s. 7.

Let’s turn to the essential requirements of s. 43, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada. First, the section requires the force used to be for the purpose of correction/discipline. Such acts would be “sober, reasoned uses of force” that “restrain, control or express some symbolic disapproval” of the behavior. Although this element is understandable, the allowance for force to “express some symbolic disapproval” is a puzzling concept in the legal arena. Certainly the symbolic use of force is used in the broader context of military expression, such as retaliatory strikes. However, the symbolic nature of that force seems to be based on generating fear and domination over a populace. In the context of s. 43, it becomes difficult to envision force as a symbolic expression other than, as an example, an antiquated response to foul language – washing a child’s mouth out with soap or tugging on an ear to show disapproval. Whether or not this kind of symbolism can truly be viewed as “sober, reasoned uses of force” remains open to debate.

The second requirement, which takes the perspective of the recipient of the force, is the need for the child to benefit or learn from the forceful act. If a child is too young or developmentally challenged, use of force, even if for corrective purposes, is not appropriate and s.43 defence cannot be used.

Next, the Court must consider whether the force used is reasonable in the circumstances. The “reasonableness” of the force is delineated by reference to what is acceptable in society by looking at international standards and expert opinion. Again, corporeal punishment used on a child under 2 years of age is considered harmful, as may be such punishment on a teenager. The majority also considered force used to the head area as inappropriate. Additionally, using a belt or implement to apply force is unacceptable. In the end, reasonableness under the section is constrained by who is receiving the corrective punishment, the manner in which the punishment is being applied, and the target area of that force.

In the case of teachers, any type of corporeal punishment used - what comes to mind is the application of a ruler to the hand - is not reasonable force. Teachers, however, may need to remove a child or restrain one but any other force, even I would suggest “symbolic force,” is not acceptable.

In the end, the Chief Justice viewed the section as a necessity in the realities of family relationships when she stated at paragraph 62:

The reality is that without s. 43, Canada’s broad assault law would criminalize force falling far short of what we think of as corporal punishment, like placing an unwilling child in a chair for a five-minute “time-out”.  The decision not to criminalize such conduct is not grounded in devaluation of the child, but in a concern that to do so risks ruining lives and breaking up families — a burden that in large part would be borne by children and outweigh any benefit derived from applying the criminal process.

This above recognition of the limits of the criminal law, limits which we as a society desire and need in order to maintain our fundamental social constructs, really does define this section as it is presently applied. In fact, I represented a client who was charged with assault as a result of restraining a teen, who was acting violently and was under the accused’s care. It was this section, which provided the litmus test and ultimately resulted in his acquittal.

More controversial, however, is the use of the section where punishment is meted out on the basis of cultural or religious norms, which differ from “Canadian” norms. In those instances, what may be acceptable punishment in the accused’s social circle may not be acceptable in the broader Canadian view. In the dissenting decision of the Canadian Foundation for Children case, Justice Arbour raised this possible dichotomy in support of the position that the concept of “reasonableness” under the section is more of a moving target and less of an articulable standard. She commented in paragraph 185 that:

Corporal punishment is a controversial social issue.  Conceptions of what is “reasonable” in terms of the discipline of children, whether physical or otherwise, vary widely, and often engage cultural and religious beliefs as well as political and ethical ones.  Such conceptions are intertwined with how other controversial issues are understood, including the relationship between the state and the family and the relationship between the rights of the parent and the rights of the child.  Whether a person considers an instance of child corporal punishment “reasonable” may depend in large part on his or her own parenting style and experiences.  While it may work well in other contexts, in this one the term “reasonable force” has proven not to be a workable standard. 

Finally, I leave this podcast with a more esoteric or philosophical view. As touched on by the Chief Justice, the truth behind this section, and all of the sections, which justify the use of force, may not reflect the kind of society we truly want: we want a society free of violence and the threat of violence. However, the reality is that even our rule of law carries with it an aspect of violence. As Walter Benjamin opined in his “Critique of Violence,” not only is violence the means to preserving the Rule of Law, “Law-making is power-making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence.”

This concept is further explored in Robert Cover’s electrifying article entitled “Violence and the Word,” which reminds us that whenever the justice system metes out punishment or even pronounces a judgment, a person is coerced to do something they do not want to do. In some instances the force is minimal, in others it involves a total loss of liberty. It is this use of force, which we try to contain, hoping its use will be based on reason and equity. Yet this “force” still remains part of what we would all consider a well-run society and fundamental to the justice system.

Section 43, albeit a seemingly simple defence is in reality a section, which causes one to re-think the meaning of force and its place in today’s society. It has been more than a decade since the Court has expounded on this section. As a result, it will be interesting to see how this section holds up to the ever-evolving societal conceptions of law’s function in our private relationships and law’s responsibility to protect vulnerable members of our society.

For more on Robert Cover, read my previous blog discussing his work here.