Why children should be barred from cells

Shauneen LambeShauneen Lambe explains why Just for Kids Law is calling for urgent reform in the way arrested children are treated.

The treatment of children at police stations has long been an issue of concern to Just for Kids Law. We previously campaigned to close the loopholes which were allowing arrested 17 year olds to be treated as adults by police, and which denied them the legal protections given to younger children.

Despite winning changes over 17 year olds, problems remain, which is why we have now launched a new and wider-ranging campaign: No child in cells.

Evidence shows that each year thousands of children – some as young as eight – are being detained in police cells overnight, often in contravention of the law.

The law surrounding the detention and treatment of all people at the police station is the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Contained within PACE are the special provisions for children and young people. As every police station representative knows section 38(6) PACE states when a custody officer has authorised the detention of a ‘juvenile’ the police should move the ‘arrested juvenile’ to local authority accommodation unless it is ‘impracticable’ to do so,

The legislation which mirrors the obligations for local authorities to receive these children is set out in section 21(2)(b) of the Children Act and states that every local authority must receive and provide accommodation for children whom they are requested to receive under section 38(6) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

However, these laws are regularly ignored or frustrated by police or local authorities. A year and half ago, Theresa May, at that time the Home Secretary and Nicky Morgan, then the Secretary of state for Education, wrote to every local authority child services lead. They wrote because they recognised that the ‘evidence suggests that the legal requirements are not being followed’ reminding children’s services that their duty to accommodate is an ‘absolute duty’ (here).

These comments are undoubtedly an understatement: according to the Howard League, in 2011, for example, 40,000 children were detained over night at police stations. These are not all children who have been charged, some might be held pending ongoing investigations, others might be being held for breach of bail or for welfare reasons. We don’t know which category children fall into because the data is not uniformly being kept.

So, we are faced with a situation where thousands of children are being detained in police cells over night, despite the law clearly stating that they shouldn’t be.

The debate goes on with the police and local authorities pointing the finger at each other, which may be why the issue hasn’t been resolved. The local authorities say that they don’t have any secure beds available. The police may insist that a secure bed is what’s needed, as a child poses a risk to the public of serious harm. The local authority may say there is no risk, and a non-secure bed would be suitable, and so it goes on. While, the police and local authorities argue among themselves, it is the arrested children who suffer.

To highlight the impact on children of being kept in cells, whether overnight or for shorter periods, we commissioned a film from Adjust Your Set (here). As part of the research for this, we talked to a number of children who had been detained in police cells and their parents, to ask them what it felt like. The message was clear; being held in a police cell traumatises children. They told us they felt as if they were being treated as if they were ‘killers’, even though they had been arrested for a minor offence. They talked about sitting for hours and hours with nothing to do, with no blanket, with no one to talk to, alone and afraid. One 17 year old said: ‘I could hear people yelling and banging and there were guys in full riot gear. I felt like I was in the shark pit.’ This is no way for children to be treated.

Their parents felt equally traumatised, as if their children had been kidnapped, but because their child had been taken by the state, the parents felt powerless and voiceless in their indignation. The powerlessness was particularly apparent when their child was taken and held for fairly minor allegations. There is a sense that no one would believe that the police would act in such a way unless it was for something ‘serious’ or if there was a ‘strong case’. The parents talk of their anger when they realised that their child had done nothing wrong, yet the machinery of the state had kept on moving, dealing only with the investigation of an alleged crime and forgetting that these are children.

And this really lies at the heart of Just for Kids Law’s campaign. The police lead for children and young people Olivia Pinkney agrees. In the national strategy for policing children and young people she states: ‘It is crucial that in all encounters with the police those below the age of 18 should be treated as children first.’ However the good intent that we see from the top is not filtering down to those who police the streets. There are some examples of good practice: Greater Manchester Police, for example, have put in place a protocol that means an investigation takes place every time a child is detained over night in contravention of PACE, but the norm across the country remains to detain children over night in police cells rather than accommodating them elsewhere.

We have started legal action issuing a judicial review against Islington council who have now asked the courts to stay proceedings pending their own internal review.

We are willing to help any lawyer or law firm who wishes to begin similar legal action in their local areas. We hope that if we can apply pressure across the country this unlawful and traumatic practice will stop.


About Shauneen Lambe

Shauneen is executive director Just for Kids Law. She is a barrister and helped establish the charity Reprieve

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