Research Watch

The abolition vs. limitation position of corporal punishment in Ontario: Did the Supreme Court do right by Canada’s children?

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Carolyn O'Connor & Bryn King

Durrant, J. E., Fallon, B., Lefebvre, R. & Allan, K. (2017). Defining reasonable force: Does it advance child protection? Child Abuse & Neglect, 71, 32-43, 


Canada is one of several countries to have preserved the legal defense for parents to use corrective and “reasonable” force against children. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada amended Section 43 of the Criminal Code to specify the criteria that delineates non-abusive force as that which is administered 1) by a parent; 2) to children between the ages of 2 and 12 years; 3) to a child who is capable of learning from it; 4) in a manner that is transitory and trifling, or “nonminor”; 5) without objects or blows/slaps to the head; 6) with corrective intent; 7) in a way that is not degrading, inhuman, or harmful. The current study sought to replicate findings by Durrant and colleagues (2009) that disprove this “limitation position” and provide further support for the “abolition position” that maintain children are better protected when all forms of physical punishment are eradicated.

Although the Durrant et al. (2009) study used a nationally representative dataset, the last Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS) was performed in 2008, and the researchers of this study sought to test the Supreme Court’s limits with a sample of cases generated after an adequate amount of time had passed. The authors chose the 2013 Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (OIS-2013). Data were collected by child welfare workers during the standard process of their investigations for a 1- to 2-month period. To test the limitation position, researchers operationalized each of the Supreme Court’s seven limits and compared these to the characteristics of the substantiated physical maltreatment cases in the OIS-2013 (N=267). Researchers examined the proportion of cases in three ways: in which 1) each of; 2) at least one; and 3) all of the court’s limits were exceeded, and then compared these proportions to those cases in which spanking was characteristic in the home. To test the abolition position, researchers used a sample of substantiated (N=267) and unsubstantiated (N=712) physical maltreatment cases from the OIS-2013 to determine whether spanking in the home is a better predictor of substantiation than the court’s standards. To examine the power of each predictor, researchers conducted simple logistic regression analyses. Then, to identify the combination of variables that best predict substantiation, the authors performed a stepwise multiple logistic regression analysis.

Results show that the majority of substantiated physical abuse cases fell within each of the court’s limits on reasonable force while 28.4% did not exceed any of the limits. In 39.4% of cases, spanking was typical in the home and therefore, spanking was considered the second foremost characteristic of substantiated maltreatment cases than each of the court’s criteria, aside from the use of nonminor force (48.4% of cases). These findings corroborate those of Durrant et al.’s 2009 study that disproves the limitation position. Results support the abolition position also found by Durrant and colleagues (2009), since spanking was determined to be the best predictor of substantiation and accounted for 11% of the variance in substantiation decisions. Spanking was followed by the use of nonminor force and child’s age over 12 years, each representing 4% of the variance. When all three predictors were included in the model, cases in which spanking was typical in the home were 5.84 times more likely to be substantiated than those in which spanking was not typical.

Methodological Notes

The authors presented a study that replicates findings and demonstrates consistency of results over a decade-long period. It used a provincially representative dataset that employed standardized measures very similar to that of the CIS, which enabled the researchers to make meaningful comparisons between studies. The authors note that they were unable to operationalize the last criteria from the court, “not degrading, inhuman, or harmful,” since the court did not define these terms and because the OIS-2013 did not collect data that could describe the extent of degradation, humanity, or harm experienced. They also encountered difficulty in the operationalizing of the fourth criteria, “nonminor force,” without a definition from the court and thus, based their final definition on the assumption that the court was referring to force that does not result in physical injury or emotional harm. The researchers also acknowledge that the OIS-2013 only collects data on cases that were detected, reported and investigated, and as such, they cannot determine the characteristics of undisclosed maltreatment cases. Nor can they establish whether the distribution of child age is skewed, since the detection of maltreatment among younger children is often more difficult compared to older children.


Durrant, J. E., Trocme, N., Fallon, B., Milne, C., & Black, T. (2009). Protection of children from physical maltreatment in Canada: An evaluation of the Supreme Court’s definition of reasonable force. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 18, 1-24.