25 Apr 2013

Police must treat 17-year-olds in custody as children

Two mothers, both of whose 17-year-old sons committed suicide after being detained by the police, wept in court today as a judge ruled the treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody is unlawful.

Under the police and criminal evidence act, 17-year-olds can be treated as adults when they are arrested. That means their parents are not entitled to know where their children are.

But today in the high court, Lord Justice Moses said the law must be changed because it breaches the right of parents and children to family life. The government has said it will not appeal the decision. But it comes too late for two families, the Lawtons and the Thornbers.

Jo Lawton was arrested for drink driving, Edward Thornber detained with 50p worth of cannabis. Neither of them told their parents what had happened.

Jo shot himself with the charge sheet beside him and left suicide notes to his parents saying he felt he’d only have a “meagre” future now. Edward hanged himself in a wood when he received a court summons, sent by mistake.

If we’d been given the chance to tell him ‘it’s not the end of the world’, it would have been so different. Nick Lawton

Both sets of parents are adamant, if they had known what their children were going through, they could have told them their problems were not as serious as they thought and they could overcome them.

Outside the high court, fighting back tears, Ann Thornber said:”We are delighted some good has come out of this. It’s not going to bring Edward back, but if it can stop another family going through what we are going through, it has to be positive.”

Nick Lawton said: “If the law had been changed in 2010, when the judge said it should have been, Joe and Edward would be alive today. If we’d been given the chance to tell him ‘it’s not the end of the world’, it would have been so different. He was given no support.”

Court rules that treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody as adults is unlawful

Human rights

The case was brought by 17-year-old Hughes Chang. He was arrested in April 2012 on suspicion of robbery of a mobile phone. He was held for 11 and a half hours in Battersea police station and his mother was not told, despite the fact he asked to call her. Hughes Chang was innocent and no charges were ever brought. He had never been in trouble before.

Lord Justice Moses ruled today: “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…it is inconsistent with the rights of the claimant and his mother…for the secretary of state to treat 17-year-olds as adults when in detention.”

He ruled that the home secretary’s failure to change the guidance in the police and criminal evidence act breaches the human rights act.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has already come out in support of a change in the law.

Shauneen Lambe, from Just for Kids Law, the charity that brought the case, said: “From today, every police station in the country has to protect 17-year-olds. We understand there has to be a consultation process before the law can change, but the home secretary should issue guidance to police stations across the country from today.”

Watch Katie Razzall’s report from February, when the case first went to the high court.