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Court of Appeal rules the lack of secure accommodation for children in London is unlawful

The Court of Appeal has ruled that detention of children at police stations due to a lack of secure accommodation in the capital is unlawful.

02/08/21

Court of Appeal rules the lack of secure accommodation for children in London is unlawful

The Court of Appeal has today ruled that the failure by local authorities in London to provide alternative accommodation for children arrested and held by the police is unlawful.

Legal charity Just for Kids Law brought the challenge against one local authority, Waltham Forest, although the ruling will have implications for all London local authorities, with London Councils and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services named as interested parties.

Current Government guidance says that police cells are designed for adults and an inappropriate place for children to be held. Despite this, tens of thousands of children are held overnight in a police cell every year.

Once charged with an offence, if a child cannot be bailed, they are supposed to be accommodated by the local authority. Just for Kids Law says that this rarely happens in practice, and children spend a night or more in police custody.

There is currently a shortage of secure children’s homes. The latest figures released by Ofsted showed that as of March 31st, there were just thirteen in the whole of England – none of which are in London. When operating at full capacity, these homes have a capacity to accommodate just 234 children.

Since 2002, 16 secure children’s homes have closed. At any one time, around 25 children each day are waiting for a secure children’s home place and around 20 are placed by English local authorities in Scottish secure units due to the lack of available places.

This causes great difficulty for many children who require a secure bed and must travel hundreds of miles.

In its judgement, the Court of Appeal commented in that the local authority was not even aware of which was the nearest secure children’s home in which it could place children.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the lack of such accommodation meant that local authority did not have a reasonable system in place to meet requests by the police, meaning the system was “inherently likely to fail.”

Jennifer Twite, Head of Strategic Litigation at Just for Kids Law, said it is a ‘national scandal’ that the most vulnerable children who are denied bail are not provided proper accommodation.

“It has been known for a long time that there are insufficient secure children’s homes, and the fact that there are none in the London area is unbelievable. I hope that this case demonstrates the current position is both unlawful and unacceptable and will lead to serious improvement in this area.”

The judgment quoted from a letter in 2015 sent by the Secretary of State for the Home Office and the Secretary of State for Education which said there were “serious problems” in some areas across England in complying with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE).

“The law is clear that there are very limited circumstances to justify the detention of children at police stations,” the letter stated, continuing: “Police custody can be a distressing experience and this is particularly so for children and young people in trouble. It is for this reason that the legislation is designed to keep their stay in police custody to a minimum.”

Louisa McGeehan, CEO of Just for Kids Law, said the Government must now work with local authorities to help them to comply with their legal duties to provide alternative accommodation for children who are detained by the police.

“The Government’s own national guidance makes clear that police cells are intimidating, potentially harmful environments designed to detain adults suspected of criminal activity. Unfortunately, the official guidance is not always followed, and all too often children end up spending the night in police cells when they have been arrested in a state of distress.”

A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council said they will be lodging an appeal to the ruling in due course.

"We take our duties around young people in police custody extremely seriously and their welfare needs are always the top priority. The nearest overnight secure accommodation found for the 17 year old boy in this case was ninety miles. As he was expected in court the next morning this was both impractical and not in his interests."

"The national scarcity of secure accommodation is both longstanding and something that needs resolving in the interests of young people. We have been working with other local authorities in London to try and find a permanent solution to this issue and have put a proposal to the government of two sites in the capital that will resolve this issue and ensure young people are supported during what is a traumatic time in their lives."

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