THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT A boy aged 12 is facing the wrath of the British Government after he successfully cleared the first hurdle in bringing a test case in Europe which might lead to parents being legally barred from smacking their children. Government ministers, who have vowed to defend corporal punishment vigorously, see the involvement of the European Commission of Human Rights as yet another attempt to give British parliamentary and judicial sovereignty a beating. The boy, who cannot be named because of his age, brought the case following an incident three years ago when his stepfather beat him with a garden cane after the boy tried to stab his brother with a kitchen knife. The injuries from the cane led to the boy spending some time in hospital, but the stepfather was cleared in the courts of assault. The boy's legal case is being supported by his natural father. The issue is further complicated by the apparent continual violent and disruptive behaviour of the boy himself. His mother has said she is astounded the case is going ahead, claiming her son is totally out of control and had run riot since the age of two. She said she had no other problems with her other four children and that the boy's natural father had been forced to smack him, too. She had lost count of the number of times she had been called to his school because of his disruptive behaviour. Social services, educational and clinical psychologists have all had dealings with the boy. However disruptive he may have been, he overcame several bureaucratic hurdles to take the case to the European Human Rights Commission - which vets all applications to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg - to challenge the legality of corporal punishment. The Commission has ruled that the case can now proceed. More than 60 children's organisations in Britain say smacking should be illegal. Children's rights campaigners welcome the move, saying it could lead to a ruling limiting parents' right to discipline youngsters by smacking them. Peter Newell, co-ordinator for EPOCH (End Physical Punishment of Children), said the European Commission had made a landmark decision which was the first step towards confirming that children had the same rights as adults. 'UK law and UK courts had failed this boy,' Mr Newell added. 'We must hope that the Government will now agree that the law must be changed.' But Family and Youth Concern, a traditional values pressure group, was - not surprisingly - disappointed by the ruling. 'We defend families' right to discipline their children the way they feel is best. That might mean smacking as a last resort,' its spokeswoman, Cornelia Oddie, said. The European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the European Union, although politicians like to deliberately confuse the two to their advantage in attacks on what they see as Europe's encroachment on British sovereignty. Critics argue that the definition of human rights has been progressively widened over the decades so that Britain now regularly falls foul of it. The Government was recently, for example, found guilty of violating the rights of IRA terrorists shot dead by Special Air Service undercover troops in Gibraltar. Rulings from the court have no force in British law, but successive governments have acquiesced in their favour, which is how corporal punishment came to be banned in British schools many years ago. Critics attack the court, saying it has a political mission as the right-wing Daily Telegraph claimed in an editorial last week. They say, for instance, that it is dominated by judges with little or no judicial experience and even go in for personal attacks. The Belgian judge on the European Court of Human Rights, it was pointed out last week, is the former justice minister who released the paedophile Marc Dutroux. Public opinion in Britain appears in favour of smacking. Asked if he smacked his children,Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell replied: 'Occasionally, yes.' Even Labour leader Tony Blair admits to resorting to the occasional smack to bring his children into line. The Government is meanwhile trying to play down the boy's victory so far. 'This is only a decision on the admissibility of the complaint,' Mr Dorrell said. 'English law coincides with commonsense. Parents are allowed to use corporal punishment, but only to the extent of reasonable chastisement.' The boy's lawyers argue that the Government is in breach of the European Human Rights Convention. The convention outlaws 'inhuman and degrading' treatment and lawyers will argue, when the case reaches the court - probably next year - that the definition includes the infliction of corporal punishment. The Government is likely to amend domestic law to meet the requirements of the Human Rights Convention if the Human Rights' Court rules that current legal provisions do breach the convention. But whether or not this will mean banning corporal punishment is not clear. Ironically, the boy may get what he wants anyway in the long term. Both Labour and the smaller Liberal Democrats have said they want to incorporate the Human Rights Convention fully into domestic law.