May To Act On Youth Custody Ruling

The Government has agreed to act after the High Court today outlawed a Home Office policy of treating 17-year-olds held in police custody as adults - denying them protections enjoyed by those aged 16 and under.

Two judges declared the policy, contained in a police code of conduct, unlawful and ordered Home Secretary Theresa May to revise it.

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

The judges targeted Code C of the Code of Practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which currently permits the police to treat 17-year-olds as adults.

Code C does not allow them to be treated like those aged 16 and under and contact their parents or seek the advice and assistance of an independent "appropriate" adult - measures their parents say could have saved their lives.

In a landmark decision, two judges declared that the current version of Code C was "unlawful in that it fails to distinguish between 17-year-olds and adults".

Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Kenneth Parker, sitting at London's High Court, ruled that the flawed code "fails to treat children's best interests as a primary consideration".

The failure breached Article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights as interpreted in light of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, said the judges.

They added that Mrs May's failure to revise the code to distinguish between 17-year-olds and adults was "a breach of her obligation under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and unlawful".

The judges ordered the Home Secretary to now "reconsider and consult" and to lay before Parliament a draft of an order revising the code.

Later a Home Office spokesman said:

"The Government believes the welfare and protection of all those held in police custody, especially young people, is extremely important.

"We accept the court's judgment and will consider the next steps we should take to implement the changes."

But campaigners pressed the Government to take immediate action and instruct the police to ensure that 17-year-olds in custody have access to parents and appropriate adults, before any more lose their lives.

Today's ruling was a victory for Hughes Cousins-Chang, from Tulse Hill, south London, now aged 18, who challenged the legality of the policy.

The sixth-form student and a friend were arrested by Metropolitan Police officers on a 57 bus outside Tooting Broadway Underground station on the afternoon of April 19 2012, weeks after his 17th birthday.

Both teenagers - later found to be innocent - were suspected of a mobile phone robbery. They were handcuffed, cautioned and taken to Battersea police station.

Hughes gave his date of birth, revealing that he was 17, but his request that his mother be informed of his arrest was refused, the court heard.

He rejected the offer of a solicitor, saying:

"I hadn't done anything wrong". He said he did not trust the police offer "as they had arrested me for no reason".

He said in a sworn statement:

"We were then put in a cell at about 6pm. Then we were strip-searched. My clothes were taken off when they searched me but I kept my boxer shorts on."

Lord Justice Moses said of Hughes's mother:

"She did not learn that he was in custody for about four and a half hours after he had been arrested.

"She was not allowed to speak to him. The claimant was released after 11 hours in custody."

The judge said:

"The need to include 17-year-olds within the scope of those afforded special protection in custody seems almost unanswerable."

He added:

"This case demonstrates how vulnerable a 17-year-old may be. Treated as an adult, he receives no explanation as to how important it is to obtain the assistance of a lawyer.

"Many 17-year-olds do not believe they need any guidance at all. They demonstrate all the youthful arrogance of which many parents are aware.

"All the more need, then, for help and assistance from someone with whom they are familiar."

The judge said the Home Secretary did not seek to justify the anomaly in the law which left them without protection - "she merely says that she does not need to in the light of Parliament's persistence in treating 17-year-old detainees as adults".

Ordering her to think again, the judge said:

"It is difficult to imagine a more striking case where the rights of both child and parent under Article 8 are engaged than when a child is in custody on suspicion of committing a serious offence and needs help from someone with whom he is familiar and whom he trusts, in redressing the imbalance between child and authority.

"The wish of a 17-year-old in trouble to seek the support of a parent and of a parent to be available to give that help must surely lie at the heart of family life which, quite apart from Article 8, the Government seeks to maintain and encourage.

"Once it is accepted that Article 8 is engaged then treatment of a 17-year-old as an adult seems to me to be not capable of justification."

Later Hughes, who brought his groundbreaking challenge with the help of his uncle, Christopher Chang, said outside the Royal Courts of Justice: "I am very pleased. It's been a long journey."

His mother, Carrlean, said: "I'm really, really proud of my son."

The ruling follows the high-profile deaths of two 17-year-olds, Joe Lawton and Edward Thornber, who killed themselves after getting into trouble with police. Their parents were at court today, clutching photographs of their sons.

Joe, from Stockport, Greater Manchester, was arrested when police stopped him after he decided to drive his new car home from a party and was taken into custody for drink driving.

He was kept overnight at Cheadle Heath police station in Greater Manchester without his parents' knowledge.

Two days later he took his own life, using the shotgun from the family farm.

Joe's parents, Nick and Jane Lawton, from Disley, Cheshire, said their pleasure over today's ruling was "tinged with such sadness and devastation".

Mrs Lawton fought tears as she said:

"We are obviously very pleased with the ruling. We knew right from the first moment that if we had been there it could have all been very different."

Mr Lawton stressed:

"They need to change this today. They need to get on the telephone right now.

"There should be someone ringing every police station and telling them that, today, 17-year-olds have the right to have an appropriate adult."

Ann Thornber, from Didsbury, Greater Manchester, said her son, Edward, had been sent a court summons "in error" rather than a final warning for possessing 50p worth of cannabis.

The lacrosse star was found hanged on September 15 2011.

Mrs Thornber said:

"If we had been told and had been informed we would have been able to support Edward going through that crisis and to reassure him that it was a mistake.

"He was 17 and he was being treated as an adult when in theory he wasn't, he was a 17-year-old."

She added:

"It's just so difficult. 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.

Director of charity Just for Kids Law Shauneen Lambe said:

"Today we are proud and sad. Proud for Hughes - that a 17-year-old stood up and said 'I don't think this is right' and took it to court - and proud that so many people's hard work has gone into changing the law."

The sadness was for the "terrible loss" the families had to go through and that the Home Secretary did not change the law before the case got to court.

"Our pressing concern is how this protection can be implemented to protect 17-year-olds from today," she said.

"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."