“End overnight police detention of children” says children’s rights charity

21 Feb 2022

Today, the children’s rights charity Just for Kids Law is calling for an end to the overnight detention of children by police with the launch of its latest report, "It’s horrible when they keep you in there at night”: Ending the overnight detention of children in police custody, at a briefing to Parliamentarians, police representatives, and youth justice campaigners.

Tens of thousands of children are held overnight in a police cell every year, despite the Children Act 2004 placing a statutory duty on police and local authorities to have regard to the safety, welfare, and well-being of children. Police cells are an inappropriate place for children to be held, yet large numbers of children continue to spend a night or more in police custody causing them fear, anxiety, and distress.

Our report found that despite an overall decrease in the number of children detained in police custody overnight in recent years (in line with the reduction in child arrests and numbers of first-time entrants to the youth justice system), serious failures to safeguard children are still taking place:

  • In 2019, at least 21,369 children were detained overnight in police custody either pre- or post-charge, a third of all those arrested.
  • 244 children aged 12 and under were held overnight and 9 children held overnight were just 10 years of age. As only a minority of forces provided data for the youngest children, the actual figure is likely to be higher.
  • In one case in 2021, a 16-year-old boy was detained for 5 days following a warrant being issued for his arrest.
  • Black children are disproportionately detained in police custody overnight - 21.7% (4,193), with a total of 15% (2,893) from other minority ethnic backgrounds.

It’s horrible when they keep you in there at night. You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s going to happen or what to do with yourself. It’s just horrible.

15-year-old boy and Looked After Child, held overnight in police custody on multiple occasions

I didn’t know they could do that to you…It was awful, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be ok.

12-year-old boy, following his first experience being held in police custody overnight

Amongst our key recommendations to bring about the substantial reform required, we are calling for:

  • Detention in police custody to be used only as a last resort with a much-reduced time limit to how long a child can be detained in police custody to be set into legislation
  • A review of the collection, collation and publication of data relating to the overnight detention of children in police custody, both pre and post charge, to ensure adequate oversight and scrutiny of this serious breach of children’s rights
  • A review of the College of Policing’s Authorised Professional Practice on arrest and detention to ensure that police officers understand that children should only be detained as a matter of last resort and for the shortest possible time
  • The development of a National Police Chief’s Council strategy to ensure that police detention is only used as a matter of last resort and for the shortest possible time for all children
  • All police forces and local authorities to sign up to and fully implement the Home Office Concordat on Children in Custody and clearly set out how they will reduce the number of children who are detained overnight in police custody each year, post charge
  • Adequate funding for the provision of secure accommodation and non-secure local authority accommodation across the country to enable local authorities to meet their duties under both section 38(6) of PACE and 21(2)(b) of the Children Act 1989

Louise King, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Just for Kids Law, said:

Children who come into contact with the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable in society, yet thousands are spending the night in police cells designed to hold adults suspected of criminal activity, leaving children feeling extremely distressed and vulnerable. 

We are particularly concerned that there is also significant racial disproportionality. Nearly 22% of the children held overnight are Black and 15% are from other minority ethnic backgrounds.

We need immediate action now, by all those responsible for safeguarding children and protecting their rights, to end this unacceptable and deeply unsafe practice.

Notes to editors:

You can watch a recording of our launch event here.

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.

No child in cells campaign

Since 2016 we have brought a series of legal challenges against police forces and local authorities concerning the unlawful detention of children in police cells overnight. Find out more about our campaign to end the overnight detention of children in police custody.

Understanding Police Bail and Remand for Children with the Youth Justice Legal Centre

This guide provides an overview of the law on the pre- and post-charge detention of children by the police and examines the corresponding duties of the local authority. The guide gives practical tips on what can be done by practitioners to reduce the time spent by children in police custody and, in particular, how to avoid their detention overnight at the police station. View a recording of the guide launch here.