LONDON: The Court of Appeal has today ruled on a case brought by the children’s legal charity Just for Kids Law, who successfully argued that the failure by local authorities in London to provide appropriate alternative accommodation for children arrested and held by the police is unlawful. The challenge was brought against one local authority, Waltham Forest, although the issue affects all London local authorities, and the London Councils and Association of Directors of Children’s Services were named as interested parties.
Ten of thousands of children are held overnight in a police cell every year, despite clear guidance from government that police cells are designed for adults and an inappropriate place for children to be held. Once charged with an offence, if a child cannot be bailed, they are supposed to be accommodated by the local authority. Sadly, in practice this rarely happens, and children spend a night or more in police custody.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the lack of such accommodation meant that Waltham Forest did not have a reasonable system in place to meet requests by the police, stating at para 64:
“The system was inherently likely to fail in the sense that, as a matter of routine, the answer to a police request would be “No.””
In London, one of the problems is the lack of alternative accommodation. There are only 15 secure children’s homes in England and Wales, and none in the London area. This causes great difficulty for many children who require a secure bed and have to travel hundreds of miles. It was apparent in the case that Waltham Forest were not even aware of which was the nearest secure children’s home where they could place children. The Court commented (at para 80) that “the fact that [Waltham Forest] was apparently unaware of exactly which accommodation was potentially available to it to meet PACE requests reinforces my conclusion that no reasonable system was in place.”
Since 2016, Just for Kids Law has brought a series of legal challenges against police forces and local authorities concerning the detention of children in police cells overnight as part of our No Child in Cells campaign.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Sam Jacobs from Doughty Street Chambers acted for Just for Kids in this challenge and have been working with Just for Kids on other legal challenges.
The judgment (at paras 39-41) quoted from a letter in 2015 sent by the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the Secretary of State for Education which highlighted the problems, and referenced:
“the serious problems there are in some areas across England in complying with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and the related requirement in section 21 of the Children Act 1989 with respect to the care of children who have been charged with an offence and have been denied bail.”
“The law is clear that there are very limited circumstances to justify the detention of children at police stations.”
The letter also said: “Police custody can be a distressing experience and this is particularly so for children and young people in trouble. It is for this reason that the legislation is designed to keep their stay in police custody to a minimum. So that the law is operating as Parliament intended the Government will therefore be working with chief constables, police and crime commissioners and local authorities to ensure that the best interests of children and young people are served. What this means is ensuring compliance with the law across all police and local authority areas in England. …”
Jennifer Twite, Head of Strategic Litigation at Just for Kids Law, said:
“It is a national scandal that we do not provide proper accommodation for our most vulnerable children when they are denied bail. It has been known for a long time that there are insufficient secure children’s homes, and the fact that there are none in the London area is unbelievable. I hope that this case demonstrates the current position is both unlawful and unacceptable and will lead to serious improvement in this area.”
Louisa McGeehan, CEO of Just for Kids Law, said:
“The Government’s own national guidance makes clear that police cells are intimidating, potentially harmful environments designed to detain adults suspected of criminal activity. Unfortunately, the official guidance is not always followed, and all too often children end up spending the night in police cells when they have been arrested in a state of distress.
“The Government must work with local authorities to help them to comply with their legal duties to provide alternative accommodation for children who are detained by the police.”
Notes to Editors
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About Just for Kids Law
Just for Kids Law is a UK charity that works with and for children and young people to hold those with power to account and fight for wider reform by providing legal representation and advice, direct advocacy and support, and campaigning to ensure children and young people in the UK have their legal rights and entitlements respected and promoted and their voices heard and valued.