The forthcoming Policing and Criminal Justice Bill should reform outdated procedures and help children in police custody.

Yesterday’s report by the National Appropriate Adult Network is a reminder of the shortcomings in the treatment of vulnerable people in police custody. A reform promised in the last Queen’s speech is unlikely to do enough, especially for 17-year-olds. 

The prime minister’s office says the forthcoming Policing and Criminal Justice Bill will create ‘legislative consistency within the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) to ensure that 17-year-olds are treated as children under all its provisions’.

The breach in consistency dates from 1989 when the legal age for children was set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and by the Children Act. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act Code of Practice C (Code C) continued to handle 17-year-olds as adults. Yet, in court, they were children.

The tragic suicides of Edward Thornber in 2011 and Joe Lawton in 2012, after being detained without contact with a legal guardian or other ‘appropriate adult’, highlighted the stakes.

In a 2013 High Court judgment, Lord Justice Moses ruled that treating 17-year-olds as adults is inconsistent with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Hughes Cousins-Chang brought the case after being arrested and not allowed to see his mother in custody. As 17-year-olds, Cousins-Chang, Thornber and Lawton had rights denied in PACE for the attendance of an appropriate family member, social worker or other not employed by the police.

Only juveniles, the mentally disordered and vulnerable adults benefited.

Six months after the ruling, Code C paragraphs 3.15 and 11.15 were amended and police forces offered the group help from appropriate adults.

However, the forthcoming bill needs to do more. 

Section 38 PACE, covering the duties of custody officers after charge, still only applies to arrested juveniles and adults, but not for those aged below 12, or who have reached 17. The police have a duty of care two hours after vulnerable people leave detention. Depending on the discretion and resources of custody, children are sent home either alone on foot or with a police escort.

Legislation would consistently safeguard children with controlled handovers to carers and take the pressure off custody officers. Also, solicitors would have more of a legal basis to advance their clients’ welfare after recorded interviews.

Some children, co-operative or not, find losing their liberty confusing and intimidating more than others. For example, if a child refuses consultation with a solicitor, only trusted appropriate adults may give non-legal advice in private and confidence. Uniquely, appropriate adults create a space to break down barriers and facilitate informed decisions, including whether to hear legal advice.

Bullying tactics against children with varying experiences in custody happen in too many interviews. Appropriate adults can intervene throughout.

Used appropriately, interventions make the adversarial gravity of police investigations lighter for the child so more reliable evidence comes through. PACE, since its inception, established appropriate adults particularly for this purpose, but ignored 17-year-olds.

The new bill must reform outdated PACE procedures for all children.

Curtis Brown is a customer services officer at the Law Society and a journalist