Guidance issued by the College of Policing (which applies to children/young persons), states as follows: “Children and young people are a protected group with specific vulnerabilities. Their treatment in detention is governed not only by domestic legislation but also by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which the UK has signed and ratified. The UNCRC defines a child as a human being below the age of 18, unless the relevant laws recognise an earlier age of majority”. In particular, the UNCRC specifically states that custody should be used “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”. The bar to justify the detention of a child in a police cell is therefore very high.
The reason is obvious; an arrest has the potential to affect a child’s life adversely in many ways, from the immediate traumatic experience of detention to the uncertainty of prosecution. It can also tarnish their futures, for example through Disclosure and Barring checks that could affect job or study opportunities.
Notwithstanding the UN Convention, the sad fact is that the Police are still arresting some children where an arrest is simply not necessary and could and should have been avoided by means of an invitation to voluntarily assist the Police, by way of interview.
In this respect, I have just concluded claims brought for 5 children against a regional Police Force which resulted in payments totalling £40,000 in compensation for wrongful arrest.
All 5 boys (then aged either 14 or just 15) were arrested on suspicion of assaulting a fellow schoolboy 5 months earlier. At the time the victim had allegedly been too scared and embarrassed to report it.
Upon notification, the Police made initial enquiries, arranged to interview the victim and then arrested the 5 suspects the following day. Given the number of suspects and suggested requirement for them to be arrested and interviewed at the same time, this was identified as a “resource intense process”.
Arrest was said by the Police to be necessary in order to “seize mobile phones from the suspects, and to avoid the possibility of contamination of accounts by way of collusion”.
On the day of arrest, 3 of the boys were arrested at their school and 2 at home. The debrief for this “resource intense process” appears to have been rushed and incomplete; 3 of the boys were arrested for rape and 2 for sexual assault. Phones and laptops were seized and all 5 were escorted separately to a local Police Station whilst efforts were made to contact their parents to act as Appropriate Adults.
All 5 boys had no prior experience of arrest, let alone Police custody. All 5 were, understandably bewildered and intimidated by their arrest and subsequent detention. Upon arrival at the Police Station, the 5 were individually processed; first obliged to provide their personal details and then quizzed as regards their health and general wellbeing. In response, the boys said they were “confused”, “shocked and upset”, “nervous” and “scared and confused”. All 5 were searched and any possessions seized which for one boy included “cash of £5.47, bottle of water, train ticket, school note book, sweet, tie and wrist band” and another “train ticket, jumper, tie and chewing gum”. All 5 were then escorted to and locked up in adult cells which were described as cold and dirty. All 5 subsequently described feeling isolated and scared.
In due course, the nature of the alleged offence was clarified (the complainant alleged that he had been sexually assaulted not raped), parents arrived to act as Appropriate Adults and all 5 boys were interviewed during which each answered questions, robustly denying the allegation. Eventually, after 5 – 6 hours in custody, all 5 boys were released on bail for further investigation. Three months later they were advised that no further action would be taken.
On the basis of the complainant’s account, it was appropriate to interview the 5 boys but was it really necessary to arrest them, particularly given that arrest and detention must only ever be a last resort?
I was instructed to act on behalf of the boys by their parents and I am delighted to report that the Police accepted that each arrest was indeed unlawful. Any theoretical risk of collusion had long passed, as all 5 boys and the complainant had been at the same school for the 5 months since the date of the alleged incident. The trauma of the public arrests and lengthy detention was wholly unnecessary and avoidable.
Following prolonged negotiations, the Police agreed to compensate each boy £8,000 to reflect the shock of arrest and loss of liberty.
Given this was a pre-planned Police operation, concerning 5 suspects, 4 of whom were 14 and 1 who had just turned 15 it is a travesty that more careful consideration was not given to the question of arrest and alternative options to custody.
According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there were 101, 926 arrests in 2015. It is apparent that at least 5 of those arrests of the children in England and Wales were unlawful. I suspect however that this is just the tip of the iceberg.