Court Rules Home Secretary’s Treatment of 17-year-olds Unlawful

25 Apr 2013

In a landmark judgement, the High Court today ruled that treating 17-year-olds at the police station in the same way as adults is unlawful. In ruling against the Home Secretary the Court stated, “The wish of a 17-year-old in trouble to seek the support of a parent and of a parent to be available to give that help must surely lie at the heart of family life…….. it is inconsistent with the rights of the claimant and his mother… for the Secretary of State to treat 17-year-olds as adults when in detention… The Secretary of State’s failure to amend Code C [of PACE] is in breach of her obligation under the Human Rights Act 1989, and unlawful.”

Under existing domestic and international law, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child. However, a legal anomaly in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and PACE Codes issued by the Home Secretary means 17-year-olds are routinely denied access to an independent adult or their parents to guide them through an often bewildering and traumatic legal process. According to the National Appropriate Adult Network, 75,000 17-year-olds are held in police custody in the UK every year.

The Home Secretary has the power to amend Code C of PACE but has thus far chosen not to do so, despite the urging of expert bodies nationally and internationally.  These bodies include the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, the Children’s Commissioner, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Most recently the Association of Chief Police Officers this week stated, “As you may know the position of 17-year-olds as adults under PACE is not consistent with the way in which they are treated under other legislation, for example, the Children’s Act 1989 and the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 not to mention the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We find this incongruous and would support a change in legislation to bring PACE into line with other legislation and for 17-year olds to be treated as juveniles when in police custody. However this would require a change in legislation and is therefore properly a matter for government.”

The High Court challenge highlights the case of a 17-year-old who was held in a London police station for 12 hours overnight on suspicion of robbery. The boy, who had no previous convictions, was not allowed to ring his mother to explain where he was or ask her to come to the police station, nor was he offered the services of an appropriate adult. The boy was later released without charge. His family did not know where he was for almost five hours, and even then his mother was not permitted to speak to him by telephone.

As the Court recognised, Apart from the mother of this claimant, other parents have joined the ranks of those who see no legitimate basis for treating 17-year-olds as adults.  It would not be fair if this court dealt in detail with the disturbing histories which prompt their support for this application. I need only record that no one outside the Home Department, be they expert or not, has joined in the Secretary of State’s opinion.”

Two sets of parents supporting this judicial review understand more than most why a change in the law is needed: Nick and Jane Lawton, the parents of 17-year-old Joe Lawton who killed himself in 2012 after having been charged and bailed to court on a drink driving charge; and Adrian and Ann Thornber, whose son 17-year-old son Edward killed himself in 2011 when he was sent a letter from Devon and Cornwall police charging him with possession of 50p worth of cannabis. The Lawton's petition on campaign site gathered 57,000 signatures and was delivered to 10 Downing Street.

The children’s legal charity Just for Kids Law led the campaign to change the law through the Courts. A number of other organisations, including the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales and the National Appropriate Adult Network, have supported the campaign.

Director of Just for Kids Law Shauneen Lambe said, “The judgement today makes me proud. Proud of the 17-year-old who stood up and said, ‘I am prepared to take this to court because I think it is not fair.’ Proud to be a citizen of a country whose judges are prepared to tell the Home Secretary that she is wrong when she is. And proud that because of all the hard work of so many, this country will now be a better place for all 17-year-olds. Just for Kids Law was set up to protect children’s rights. We feel this judgment has done that.”

Lambe also said, “A pressing concern is how this protection can be implemented to protect 17-year-olds immediately, given the Court’s ruling that they have a right to be protected. We have asked the Home Secretary to issue immediate guidance to the police while she begins her consultation, Just for Kids Law would be happy to assist in the drafting of this. We are of course anxious to make sure another tragedy does not occur in the interim.”

Notes to Editors:

  • Just for Kids Law is a charity providing advocacy, support and assistance to young people in difficulty; particularly those in trouble with the law, looked after children and those at risk of exclusion from school. We combine quality legal representation with tailored, personal support. We support young people through all their difficulties, to tackle the problems they face and help them in their efforts to lead positive and fulfilling lives. For more information, visit
  • This case will be cited as R(C) v. SSHD and Metropolitan Police. The High Court sat as a Divisional Court (two judges) given the importance of the issues. 
  • The two judges were Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Kenneth Parker. The judgment of the Court was given by Lord Justice Moses
  • C was represented by barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher of Doughty Street Chambers and Lawrence and Co Solicitors with Just for Kids Law. For more information, visit: and
  • The Howard League for Penal Reform and Coram Children’s Legal Centre were given permission to intervene in this case, in support of the Claimant’s claim. For more information, visit: and
  • The power that allows the Home Secretary to amend the Codes to Police and Criminal Evidence Act can be found at 67(2) and (3) of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 subject to the approval of both House of Parliament at s.67(7)and (7A).