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A police cell is no place for a child to sleep

After Just for Kids Law brought a series of legal challenges, the government has now acted to confirm that local authorities must provide safe beds for arrested children, says Jennifer Twite

In July 2016, Just for Kids Law began a concerted programme of taking legal action against local authorities who were routinely breaching their statutory duties towards arrested children, and leaving them with nowhere else to sleep but in a police cell.

The series of judicial reviews were brought as part of our ‘No Child in Cells campaign’, launched because we were concerned about the hundreds of children who are kept overnight in police detention every week, throughout the country.

The response of local authorities was mixed (of which, more below), but the government has now acted to make its position on the issue very clear. Last month [October], it published a ‘concordat’, which urges police and local authorities to comply with their duties to ensure that arrested children are detained in appropriate accommodation provided by the local authority, rather than in cells. This is welcome news, and we hope that this will lead to a significant reduction in the number of children held overnight in police stations.

The concordat reiterates clear government policy that children should not be detained in police cells. In January 2015, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, wrote to all local authorities throughout the country expressing her concern that the law was not being complied with and reminding them that spending time in police custody can be a distressing experience, particularly for children. Despite this, over 800 children a week are kept overnight in police cells, many of them for minor offences – hence the launch of our ‘No Child in Cells’ campaign.

We were aware that many children who should have been transferred to local authority accommodation were simply being left in cells instead. While it is lawful for children to be kept in the police station while a matter is being investigated, once charged with an offence, a child must either be bailed or sent to local authority accommodation, until they can appear before a court.

Just for Kids asked all London local authorities how many arrested children they had accommodated last year, who had been transferred to them from the police station. The total was 183. We also asked the Metropolitan Police how many children were left in police cells post-charge, over night, all of whom should have been transferred. That number was 1,454. This confirmed our fears, that only a fraction of the children should have local authority accommodation are actually getting it, with the vast majority being left in cells. There is no reason to believe that this is a problem in London alone, as this appears to be a nationwide issue. Shockingly, it appears that most London boroughs have no access to suitable accommodation, and are therefore unable to fulfil their legal duties toward arrested children.

Hence the need for judicial reviews. So far, we have had successes against four separate local authorities across London, and we continue to work on cases involving others. Many local authorities have accepted at the outset that they have so far failed to comply with their duties towards these children and we are working constructively with them. In other areas, we have found that the police and some other local authorities are beginning to work on their own policies to improve practice in their local area, and we are keen to help and support this where possible.   We are looking at what training we can provide, and other ideas to ensure that children are treated appropriately and lawfully going forward.

In the research we have done and the cases we have taken, we have identified a number of common issues that seem to have led to such a widespread problem. For example, many local authorities do not have sufficient suitable accommodation to house children in this situation; many police officers and local authority staff are not fully trained on the law and their duties, and they misunderstand what it is they are required to do in a given situation. There is often poor communication between the police officers in the custody suite and the local authority, sometimes, for example, never managing to reach each other on the phone. Where the situation has improved, it is when the local police and the local authority have resolved to work together by, for example, implementing a joint protocol to ensure better communication, and clear methods of escalating a situation within both the police and local authority where appropriate. Coupled with training and a commitment to ensure that accommodation can be found when needed, this should significantly reduce the number of children left in cells.

Hopefully publication of the government’s concordat will encourage highlight the need for all local authorities to review their practices so that children are not left languishing in cells overnight, but given a bed somewhere they can be kept safe and properly cared for.

 

Jennifer Twite

About Jennifer Twite

Jennifer Twite is a barrister and head of strategic litigation at Just for Kids Law. She is a finalist in this year's Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in the children's rights category

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