July 18 2024
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Third suicide in three years highlights plight of 17 year-olds in custody

Third suicide in three years highlights plight of 17 year-olds in custody

Prison bars: pic from Flickr by Jason Nahrung
prison bars - jason nahrung section

Prison bars, Jason Nahrung, Flickr

After three teenage suicides in custody in three years, a legal charity has begun legal action against Theresa May for failing to change the the PACE regime to ban the overnight detention of 17 year-olds in police stations.

The proceedings came in the wake of the death of Kesia Leatherbarrow, a 17-year old who took her own life in December 2013. Her death was, according to Just For Kids Law, the third teenage suicide in three years ‘linked to failures to treat 17 year olds in police station as children’. The legal action follows the perceived failure by the Home Secretary to address the ruling in the High Court case of R (HC) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department – see here on www.thejusticegap.com.

The High Court ruling declared it unlawful to treat 17 year-old detainees as adults and to deny their right to have a parent present with them in custody. Lord Justice Moses concluded that ‘the need to include 17 year-olds within the scope of those afforded special protection in custody seems almost unanswerable’.

That case concerned Hughes Cousins-Chang, then a sixth-form student, who together with his friend were arrested by Metropolitan Police officers on a bus outside Tooting Broadway. It was shortly after his 17th birthday. The pair was suspected of a mobile phone robbery. They were later found to be innocent but not before they were handcuffed, cautioned and taken to Battersea police station. His request that his mother be informed of his arrest was refused. Cousins-Chang was on the panel at last year’s Mind the Justice Gap debate at City hall – picture with Just for Kids Law’s Shauneen Lambe and Nicky Gavron.

MTJG - Shauneen, Hughes & NickyAt the time of the High Court ruling, there had been two suicides linked to this issue – the families of Joe Lawton and Eddie Thornber were given assurances that changes were forthcoming. In a letter in February 2013, Home Secretary Teresa May assured that ’17 year olds will receive the appropriate assistance and support while they are in police custody’.

In October changes were announced to PACE Code C allowing arrested 17 year-olds to have a parent with them when they are questioned by police. Damian Green, minister for policing, announced the changes but stopped short of making further amendments, simply stating that ‘we will consider all legislation which appears to treat 17 year olds as adults…and bring forward legislative proposals as necessary’.

Of particular concern is the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 section 38(6) which states that children held following arrest are afforded the right to be transferred to local authority care overnight (as opposed to being held in a police cell). The legislation denies arrested 17 year olds this right.

‘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.’
Martina Brincat Baines, mother of Kesia Leatherbarrow


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