Teenager wins ruling on detention of 17-year-olds

The right to contact an "appropriate adult" now extends to 17-year-olds

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A teenager has successfully challenged the law which treats 17-year-olds in police custody as adults, not children.

The High Court ruled the policy was "incompatible" with human rights law. Under-17s are given greater protection.

The case was brought by Hughes Cousins-Chang, now 18, who had been kept in custody for 12 hours and strip-searched before being released on police bail.

The ruling follows the deaths of two 17-year-olds who killed themselves after getting into trouble with police.

Joe Lawton, of Stockport and Edward Thornber of Didsbury, both Greater Manchester, had been arrested and treated as adults.

According to the Home Office, every year 75,000 17-year-olds are taken into police custody.

Robbery arrest

Those aged 16 and under must have their parents contacted or be given the assistance of an "appropriate adult". Normally this would be parent, guardian, or social worker.

In his ruling on Thursday, Lord Justice Moses, sitting with Mr Justice Kenneth Parker, said: "I conclude that it is inconsistent with the rights of the claimant and his mother, enshrined in Article 8 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) for the secretary of state to treat 17-year-olds as adults when in detention."

To do so "disregards the definition" of a child in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the "preponderance of legislation affecting children and justice", the judge said.

Analysis

Campaigners who supported this legal challenge argued that the current law creates an anomaly because 17-year-olds are treated as children in all other areas of the criminal justice system, except when they are taken into police custody.

Indeed if a 17-year-old is charged when in custody whilst being treated as an adult, he or she will then be tried in a juvenile court, where he or she will revert to being treated as a child.

In addition, the campaigners argued that anyone under 18 is recognised as a child both internationally under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and domestically in a variety of statutes including the Children's Act 2004.

The UK 's treatment of 17-year-olds in custody has been criticised by international bodies and by domestic agencies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

There was a huge amount of support for the contention that, at 17 the law considers you to be a child, even if you are in police custody. The point appears to have finally been settled.

Mr Cousins-Chang - who had never been in any trouble with the police before - brought the challenge with the help of his uncle Christopher Chang.

Now 18 years old, the court lifted an anonymity order on Mr Cousins-Chang following the ruling.

He was arrested four weeks after his 17th birthday, on 19 April 2012, on suspicion of the robbery of a mobile phone.

His mother, Carrlean Chang, was not aware of his arrest for more than four hours, after the police had denied his request for her to be contacted.

When she did arrive at Battersea Police Station, she was not allowed to speak to her son.

The teenager, from Tulse Hill in south London, was finally released almost 12 hours later and was informed by letter a month after his arrest that his bail would be cancelled. He was not charged.

'Stop the devastation'

A Home Office spokesman said the government accepts the court's judgment and "will consider the next steps we should take to implement the changes".

Joe Lawton's parents said he would "still be here today" if he had received their support when he was taken into custody for drinking and driving,

Edward's mother, Ann Thornber, also welcomed the verdict. Her son took his own life after being summonsed to attend court when he was caught smoking cannabis.

Jane Lawton: "We're so pleased now but it's tinged with such sadness and devastation"

She said: "Obviously we are delighted that some good has come out of it, but it's not going to bring Joe or Edward back.

"If it can stop another family going through the devastation we have been through, there has to be something positive."

A number of charities that had pushed for the reforms said they were pleased with the verdict and have called for them to be implemented as soon as possible.

The director of Just for Kids Law, Shauneen Lambe said: "Our pressing concern is how this protection can be implemented to protect 17-year-olds from today.

"We have asked the home secretary to issue immediate guidance to police forces around the country before she begins her consultation.

"We would be happy to assist in the drafting of this. We are of course anxious to make sure another tragedy doesn't happen in the interim."

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