Suicide of another teen sparks legal action

Death of Kesia Leatherbarrow is third suicide in three years linked to failures to treat 17 year olds in police station as children
14 Jul 2014

Three grieving families have joined forces to demand that the Home Secretary keep her word to protect arrested 17 year olds.

The bereaved parents of Joe Lawton and Eddie Thornber are calling on Home Secretary Theresa May to keep a promise she made to them last year to provide 17 year olds held in the police station with all the protections that younger children are entitled to.

The Lawtons and Thornbers are now being joined in their campaign by the family of Kesia Leatherbarrow. Kesia was a vulnerable 17 year old, who killed herself in December 2013, after being arrested and held in a police cell for three days.

All six parents have now written personally to Theresa May calling on her to take urgent action to prevent any more children of this age coming to harm. They are also supporting separate legal action being taken by the charity Just for Kids Law against the Home Office for failing to act.

In 2013, the Home Secretary gave Joe’s and Eddie’s parents assurances that she would introduce reform, after a successful High Court case in April that year, backed by both families and brought by Just for Kids Law.

In the case of HC v Home Secretary, Lord Justice Moses ruled that it is unlawful for 17 year olds in the police station to be treated as adults, and denied the protection of having a parent or other adult with them, which is given to younger children.

After the case, the Home Office accepted the court’s ruling and gave clear assurances – in letters from Theresa May to the Lawtons and in parliament – that it would conduct a full review of all laws that treated arrested 17 year olds as adults, not just the provision of an appropriate adult.

Despite these assurances, the Home Secretary has made only the limited changes specified by the High Court. One of the PACE codes was amended so that 17 year olds now have the right to have a parent with them when questioned by police, but they are still treated as adults in other ways. Of particular concern is that they have no right to be transferred to local authority care overnight, unlike all other children who are being held after arrest. It was this continuing loophole which meant Kesia was held in the police station all weekend (two nights and three days), rather than being moved to accommodation suitable for children, before she went to court on the Monday morning to face minor charges.

Kesia’s mother, Martina Brincat Baines, said:

‘Despite being so young and so vulnerable, my daughter was treated by the police as if she was an adult. She was kept locked up in a cell for the whole weekend, rather than moved somewhere she could be looked after properly. Ironically, when she appeared in court on the Monday morning, the magistrates bailed her to come back the next day when the youth court would be sitting, because, as a 17 year old, the adult court couldn’t deal with her case.’

The police station is the only part of the criminal justice system where 17 year olds are not recognised as children.

Joe Lawton was also held overnight by the police.

Joe’s father, Nick Lawton, said:

‘I cannot put into words how much we and the Thornbers feel for Kesia’s family. We are distraught that another young person has died because the Home Secretary failed to keep her word to protect all 17 year olds. We will not stop campaigning on this issue until every bit of legislation that treats 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system is changed.’

Just for Kids Law director and barrister Shauneen Lambe says: 

‘Kesia’s family are understandably devastated. The Home Office, failed to extend all protections to 17 year olds, and once again we have to see the suffering of another family. Just for Kids Law is now beginning legal action again. We want the Home Office to change the law immediately, but if they do not respond to the families’ demands, we will ask the court to rule.’

A copy of the families’ letter to Home Secretary Theresa May is available on request.

Notes for editors

  1. Just for Kids Law is an award-winning charity which provides legal and other support to young people in difficulties with the law, at home, and at school.
  2. Caoilfhionn Gallagher, of Doughty Street Chambers, supported by Just for Kids Law, acted for Hughes Cousins-Chang in the 2013 High Court case of HC v Home Secretary, which established that 17 year olds in the police station must be allowed to have a parent or ‘appropriate adult’ with them. Police arrested Hughes on suspicion of stealing a mobile phone. He was held for 12 hours, strip-searched, and not allowed to let his mother know where he was, before being released without charge.
  3. In October 2013, in response to the HC ruling, the Home Secretary made changes to the PACE code C (the codes which govern treatment of people in police stations) to give 17 year olds the right to an appropriate adult. However, the government stopped short of amending the underlying legislation (Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984) which would have extended the full range of safeguards available to younger children to 17 year olds, including protection under Section 38 of the act, which entitles arrested children to be held in local authority accommodation, rather than in police cells.
  4. Kesia Leatherbarrow was arrested by Greater Manchester Police in November 2013 for possession of cannabis and criminal damage. She was kept in custody at Ashton Police Station over the weekend for her own protection, before being sent to Tameside Magistrates Court on the Monday morning. Kesia was bailed, to return the following day when the Youth Court would be sitting. She killed herself shortly afterwards.
  5. Joe Lawton was arrested in August 2012 for drink-driving. He was held overnight in Cheadle Heath police station in Greater Manchester and his family was not informed. He killed himself two days later and had the police charge sheet at his feet when he was found.
  6. Eddie Thornber was arrested for having 50p worth of cannabis in September 2011. His parents were not told of his arrest, and he agreed to accept a warning over the offence. He killed himself after wrongly being sent a court summons, which was found near his body.
  7. Just for Kids Law issue a pre-action protocol letter on 11 July 2014, alerting the Home Secretary to its intention to begin judicial review proceedings over her failure to change s38 of PACE to prevent overnight detention of 17 year olds in police stations. It is being represented pro bono by Caoilfhionn Gallaher, Martha Spurrier, and Kate O’Raghallaigh, all of Doughty Street Chambers.
  8. Home Secretary Theresa May gave written assurances to Nick Lawton in a letter dated 5 February that: ‘We will ensure that in future that 17 year olds will receive the appropriate assistance and support while they are in police custody.’ On 13 March, she wrote: ‘We are currently reviewing all legislation which appears to treat 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system and will consider whether to bring forward any further proposals for legislative change depending on the findings of this internal review.’
  9. On 21 October 2013, Damian Green, Minister for Policing, said in a parliamentary written answer to Lib-Dem MP Julian Huppert: ‘We have consulted, following the High Court judgment in the Hughes Chang case, and made revisions to Code C under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) to comply with the ruling in that case in relation to 17-year-olds and appropriate adults. Some responses to the consultation suggested amending primary legislation associated with juveniles, specifically in sections 38(6) and section 65 of PACE. We will consider all legislation which appears to treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system and bring forward legislative proposals as necessary [emphasis added].’ On 14 July 2014, Dr Huppert tabled a follow up written question asking what progress had been made.
  10. In September 2013, a named Home Office civil servant gave Just for Kids Law barrister and executive director Shauneen Lambe verbal assurance over the telephone that the government was committed to amending all parts of PACE, including the primary legislation, to remove the distinction between 17 year olds and other children in the criminal justice system.
  11. The Youth Justice Board, the government department responsible for children in the criminal justice system, has also raised concerns about the limited extent of the changes made in response to the HC decision. In September 2013, the YJB told the Home Office it had concerns relating to Home Office decisions about protecting 17 year olds ‘specifically to the issues arising from [the] decision not (at this time) to amend primary legislation’.