Coronavirus – children in police custody

The current Coronavirus pandemic has significant implications for children in the youth justice system.
25 Mar 2020

Just for Kids Law, Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the Youth Justice Legal Centre have written to the Home Office setting out our concerns about children coming into contact with the police during this period.

Lawyers representing children throughout this period need to promote children’s health and well-being as being of paramount importance in all interactions with the police.


Just for Kids Law are extremely concerned about the safety of children and young people who may be exposed to COVID-19 as a result arrest or detention. In our letter we urge the Home Office to issue immediate guidance to the police asking them to refrain from arresting children, and exposing them to greater risk of contracting COVID-19, unless absolutely necessary. Arrest should only be used as an absolute last resort, in relation to only the most serious crimes and maintaining public order, in line with the Government Coronavirus action plan1 (see paragraph 4.48 ).

Despite indications that children appear to be less at risk from the virus, the heightened chance of infection in busy and confined spaces such as police stations, still poses a real danger to them, especially those with underlying health conditions, their families and wider communities. The risk brought about by this pandemic is disproportionate to the need to arrest and detain children and young people for minor offences.

Lawyers should remind the police of the relevant parts of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE).

PACE Code C is clear that “all persons in custody must be dealt with expeditiously and released as soon as the need for detention no longer applies.”2Specifically, the College of Policing requires officers to take into account the age of a child or young person when deciding whether any of the statutory grounds for arrest apply. Officers should pay particular regard to the timing of any necessary arrests of children and young people, ensure that they are detained for no longer than necessary, both pre and post-charge, and avoid holding them overnight in police cells unless absolutely necessary.3

In 2019 alone a total of 7,038 children were detained in Metropolitan police custody overnight in London.4

This is despite the fact that, PACE s38(6) places a duty on the police to transfer children who have been charged with a criminal offence and refused bail to local authority accommodation rather than keeping them in the police station overnight.5

The National Police Chiefs’ Council further reiterates the need to “use custody for children only as a last resort.”6

The letter urges the Home Office to remind local police forces of their duties to children and young people and to take immediate action, in particular:

  • Limit arrests and only pursue the most serious offences committed by children and young people
  • Avoid placing any child or young person in police cells whilst COVID-19 risk levels remain high
  • Suspend overnight detention of any child or young person in police custody.

Calls to release children in custody gained coverage in Children & Young People Now.

Read the full letter here


  1. Coronavirus action plan: a guide to what you can expect across the UK, Department of Health and Social Care (3 March 2020  (back)
  2. Paragraph 1.1, Code C: Code of Practice for the detention, treatment and questioning of persons by Police Officers, Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Codes of Practice  (back)
  3. Section 2, Detention and custody: Children and young persons, College of Policing, 23 October 2013 (Last modified: 5 January 2017  (back)
  4. Overnight signifies that a detainee was held within Custody for four or more consecutive hours between 00:00 & 08:00. FOIA/MOPAC Ref Number 01/FOI/20/013397  (back)
  5. There are only two exceptions to this as per PACE s38(6)(a) and (b): where the custody sergeant certifies that it is impracticable to move the child to local authority accommodation; or the arrested child has attained the age of 12 and no secure accommodation is available and keeping the child in non-secure local authority accommodation such as emergency foster care, a children’s home or staying with family members would not be adequate to protect the public from serious harm from the child. For more information see  (back)
  6. National Strategy for Police Custody, The National Police Chiefs’ Council (2017  (back)