An increasing challenge for police forces across the UK is the handling of children who are taken into custody under the suspicion of committing an offence.
The law states that it is the duty of the arresting police force and the local authority to ensure under-18s are handled appropriately.
Once charged with an offence, they should be bailed to their home or transferred to local authority accommodation unless it is impracticable, or if the child needs secure accommodation and it is not available.
However, recent unannounced inspections of custody suites in Northampton and Kettering by a joint team from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found children ‘frequently’ being left in custody overnight.
The report said that despite policies being in place to move children into accommodation, under-18s who had been charged and refused bail continued to remain in custody often overnight, and for long periods.
Inspectors also found insufficient staffing levels which they said at times left ‘detainees at risk’, with a custody suite in the Kettering force having ‘slow responses to cell call bells’ and ‘infrequent observations’ of detainees.
That is a very worrying combination – especially when children are being held in cells – and with the demands on modern policing and local authorities, it appears to be proving an increasingly challenging situation.
The National Strategy for the Policing of Children and Young people says it is recognised that ‘for the majority, entering custody for the first time is a traumatic experience.’
This must never be forgotten.
It adds: “We need to make sure that young people enter custody for the right reasons at the right time and that we appropriately explore other options first.
“We will work with partners to improve our custody facilities for young people but, more importantly, we will seek alternative disposals and ways of addressing behaviour.”
Whilst that is the ambition, it is to be questioned whether these principles are being followed by forces up and down the country, as officers are under pressure and perhaps over-stretched, and custody suites are somewhat chaotic.
How children are handled in custody must be followed to the letter of the law, from the moment they are arrested to a decision being made over whether a charge is brought or not.
Sadly, in a number of cases we have handled at Hudgell Solicitors, that has not been the case and forces have admitted unlawful detention.
Custody is only brought to an end by the CPS and the custody sergeants’ decisions about whether to press charges, and if there is insufficient evidence to charge, a child can be bailed to return to the police station at a future date.
Even if charged, children can be released on police bail, with set conditions in place if necessary. At such point a force has no power to continue to detain them and must release them when an appropriate adult comes to collect them.
They cannot continue to hold them in adult cells at that stage.