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Seventeen-year-olds in custody will no longer be classed as adults

Decision finally closes an historic legal anomaly associated with the deaths of three teenagers in as many years

18 November 2014

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Decision finally closes an historic legal anomaly associated with the deaths of three teenagers in as many years

Seventeen-year-olds must now be considered children when in police custody after three teenagers committed suicide following overnight detention.

The decision, made by Lord Justice Moses at the High Court, will be a victory for three families who campaigned with the charity Just for Law Kids, to redraft the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE).

Martina Brincat Baines, whose 17-year-old daughter Kesia was found dead in December 2013 shortly after being released from police custody, led the campaign. Kesia Leatherbarrow had been held for three days and two nights after being arrested for possession of cannabis and criminal damage. Baines started an online petition demanding an end to 17-year-olds being treated as adults in the police station, which attracted nearly 30,000 signatures in under a week.

The bereaved families of Joe Lawton and Eddie Thornber also campaigned. Joe Lawton was held overnight at a police station in Greater Manchester after he was arrested for drink-driving. His family were not informed at the time. Joe Lawton committed suicide two days later. The police charge sheet was found at his feet when he was found.

Eddie Thornber was arrested for having 50 pence worth of cannabis in September 2011. Like Joe Lawton, his parents were not told of his arrest. He agreed to accept a warning over the offence, but killed himself after wrongly being sent to a court summons, which was found near his body.

In handing down his judgment, Moses said it was 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."

"This case demonstrates how vulnerable a 17-year-old may be," he commented.

Baines, who was in the House of Lords to see the amendment passed, said she was pleased to see 'Kesia's Law' passed and that 17-year-olds will now have the same protection as younger children.

"Kesia was extremely vulnerable and being kept in a police cell for so long would have had a devastating impact on her. She should have been moved to local authority care where someone could have looked after her properly. I hope that this legal change will prevent any other family suffering as we are," she added.

Just for Law Kids said the decision finally closes an historic legal anomaly which has been associated with the deaths of three 17-year-olds in three years.

In 2013, Just for Kids Law acted for Hughes Cousins-Chang in the High Court case of HC v Home Secretary, which established that 17-year-olds in the police station must be allowed to have a parent or 'appropriate adult' with them.

Following this ruling, the Home Secretary made changes to PACE code C (the codes which govern treatment of people in police stations) to give 17-year-olds the right to an appropriate adult.

However, the government stopped short of amending the underlying which would have extended the full range of safeguards available to younger children to 17-year-olds. This included protection under section 38 of the PACE 1984 Act, which entitles arrested children to be held in local authority accommodation, rather than in police cells.

Just for Kids Law barrister and director, Shauneen Lambe, said the charity welcomed that 17-year-olds would now be treated as children first and potential defendants second.

"It is just a shame that it took so long," she said, "and it was only after we had begun legal proceedings, a second time, that ministers finally acted."

Lord Faulks, speaking on behalf of the government in the House of Lords said: "The effect of the amendment would be that 17-year-olds, as with 12 to 16-year-old children, must be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation overnight."

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