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Children ‘stripped for own protection’ by police must have a parent present

Court of Appeal 'expresses concern' and rules that children in custody require special care to protect their wellbeing

20 February 2015

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The Court of Appeal ruled that safeguards set out in PACE Code C must be followed by police whenever a child or vulnerable adult is stripped.

The case of PD v Merseyside Police concerned a 14-year-old girl, with a history of mental illness, who had been a victim of sexual abuse. She was arrested in 2010, after being drunk and abusive outside a kebab shop. Taken in handcuffs to Wirral police station she was forcibly stripped by three female officers. The girl's mother was not contacted until after her daughter had been stripped.

Police had stripped PD due to concern she might use her clothes as a ligature rather than as part of a search for evidence. Therefore, the safeguards set out in PACE Code C for 'strip searching' did not apply.

The Court of Appeal, however, found this to be wrong and said that Annex A of PACE Code C should protect all those in custody whose clothing is removed.

The judgment added: 'Except in cases of urgency, where there is a risk of harm to the detainee or to others, an appropriate adult must be present (unless the detainee wishes the appropriate adult not to be present)'.

However, the Court of Appeal went on to reject PD's claim that the code had been breached, ruling that her case was a rare instance where the police felt they had to act with urgency and were therefore not obliged to contact her parents before stripping her.

Commenting on the circumstances of the case, Lord Justice Pitchford said: "I am bound to express concern that it should have been thought appropriate immediately to remove the clothes of a distressed and vulnerable 14 year old girl, without thought for alternative and less invasive measures to protect her from herself."

Just for Kids Law and Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), jointly intervened in the case and welcomed the court's clarification of the law.

Paola Uccellari, director of CRAE, said: "Being stripped by someone in a position of power is inevitably a traumatic and distressing experience for a child. This measure must only be used as a last resort. If it's being used as a matter of routine, or unnecessarily, it would breach a child's human rights. Frighteningly, CRAE research shows that the numbers of children being stripped has doubled between 2008 and 2013. Over-reliance on this practice needs to be looked at as a matter of urgency."

Director of Just for Kids Law, Shauneen Lambe, added: "We were alarmed that a police force took the position that when a child is being stripped for their own protection, rather than looking for contraband, the same safeguarding protections did not apply and welcome this clarification from the Court of Appeal that they do. Along with CRAE we have asked the government to undertake a review of why there appears to be such an increase in children being stripped by the police."

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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