Throughout 2014, the Government came under immense scrutiny and criticism in the way it differentiated between the treatment of children aged 16 compared to those aged 17 years old in the rights and treatment received whilst in custody at police stations.
In November 2014, statistics showed there were 1,055 children in custody. Whilst there has been a decline in numbers, 1 in 4 in custody is ‘on remand’ i.e. not convicted and 96% are aged 15-17. 94% are boys.
Following a High Court ruling in the case of Hughes Cousins-Chang and a campaign led by Just for Kids Law and supported by parents of two 17 year old children who had tragically committed suicide following facing legal action, Teresa May promised to "accept the court’s judgment and consider next steps to implement changes".
This has led to the Home Secretary and Nicky Morgan MP to write to Local Authorities to remind them of their absolute duty under Section 38 of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and Section 21 of the Children's Act 1989 to transfer children to local authority accommodation pending an appearance at court, unless narrow exceptions apply.
Each local authority was reminded that it "must receive and provide accommodation for a child when requested to receive under Section 38."
In my experience of regularly representing children appearing in court from police custody, the reality is far below expectations of the Home Secretary.
Recently I represented a youth with no previous convictions, charged with a low level domestic assault. The youth was suitable for bail, as conditions were not met to remand him in custody. The Custody Sgt agreed this was the case, but wouldn't bail him to the family home and instead referred his case to Social Services. The response from Social Services was that there was no accommodation available.
Despite representations being made, the child was remanded in police custody and remained in a police cell overnight and to court the following day, at which point he was bailed "to live as directed by Social Services", placing the burden firmly at their door to find accommodation, which they did.
This is not an isolated case; I have come across this problem often enough to be of the opinion that there is a combination of factors at play; lack of funding for appropriate accommodation, and crucially a lack of understanding of the absolute duty statute imposes. There does not appear to be any sense of urgency and the blanket response is "no accommodation is available". There certainly doesn't appear to be communication across areas that Teresa May would like to see.
Unfortunately, for too long this has been the norm.
The significant numbers of those in custody will undoubtedly place a financial burden on already tight budgets. I note with interest the absolute obligations are reiterated, but without any leeway or possibility for additional funding for accommodation or crucial training. This leads me to question whether Teresa May is merely paying lip service to the High Court and just in time for a general election?