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3 police officers forcibly strip a vulnerable child without calling her mum. Is that all right?

More and more children are being stripped or strip-searched in state custody in England and Wales. Children’s charities welcome a recent court judgement that clarifies the law.

Shauneen Lambe
3 March 2015
stripgraphic_1.jpg

Young people on being stripped in state custody (Youth Justice Board, 2011)

PD was 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, then taken in handcuffs to Wirral police station where she was forcibly stripped of all her clothes by three female officers. No one called her mother until after PD had been stripped.

The police say they stripped PD to prevent her harming herself, but CCTV footage of her after she had been stripped and put in a cell on her own, show her in acute distress, banging her head and pulling out chunks of hair. No officer appears to have tried to stop her hurting herself in this way.

Last week, PD lost her claim for damages from the police on a point of law. However the appeal court judges expressed their “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”.  The police claimed she had to be stripped because they were worried she might use her underwear as a ligature and hang herself.

PD’s is not an isolated case. Charities such as ours — Just for Kids Law and Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) — are alarmed at the doubling in the number of children being stripped by police over recent years, both for their own protection and to search for weapons or drugs.

Because of this, we acted as ‘interveners’ in PD’s case, which means that, although we weren’t acting for her directly, we were able to put expert evidence before the court to highlight the importance of children’s welfare and best interests being at the heart of any contact with police. In their judgment, the appeal judges wrote that they concurred “with the submissions made on behalf of the interveners that children in custody are vulnerable and that special care is required to protect their interests and well being”.

It seems that little special care was shown in this case.

Police lawyers had tried to argue that because PD was so vulnerable, she needed to be stripped for her own protection, and she was not entitled to the safeguards that are given to children who are stripped to search for evidence.

They argued that because she was not technically being strip searched (merely stripped), the protections that apply to strip searching didn’t apply. They argued that she was not, therefore, entitled to have her mother or another ‘appropriate adult’ with her, to reassure or support PD. 

The rules around strip searching are contained in what is known as PACE Code C, which specifies that where someone is strip searched by the police, the strip should be conducted by an officer of the same gender and in private. If is it a child, they are entitled to have a parent or other appropriate adult with them.

In PD’s case, the first court to look at the issue agreed with the police: it was a strip, not a strip search, so she wasn’t entitled to have her mum with her. Thankfully, the Court of Appeal disagreed, and said there is no distinction between a strip and a strip search. The same protections must apply to both.

Although this was an important point of principle to establish, and will be welcomed by children’s campaigners, it was a fairly hollow victory for PD herself. The appeal court added the rider that there is an exception to the need for a parent or other adult to be present “in cases of urgency, where there is a risk of harm to the detainee or to others” – which is what the police successfully argued in PD’s case. 

On the broader issue the decision in PD is a positive one. Human rights laws demand that the police, and other public bodies, can interfere with a person’s privacy (in this case by removing a child’s clothes), only if it is a proportionate response to the risk – that is, if there is no other less intrusive measures they could have taken to achieve their objective.

Even the most well balanced adult would be traumatised to be held down and stripped by three strangers. Imagine how much worse it must be for a child who already has mental health issues, who has previously been sexually abused. 

Just for Kids Law and Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) believe that the police should only ever strip children as a last resort, when there is no other alternative to keep them safe, and that all necessary protections should be in place to minimise the trauma involved.

This doesn’t appear to be happening in practice. Statistics recently gathered by CRAE via a freedom of information request for their State of Children’s Rights in England report show that the strip searching of children by the police doubled between 2008 and 2013. CRAE’s statistics also show that in 45 per cent of those strip searches there was no appropriate adult present. The court’s decision in PD gives welcome clarification that the police can strip a child without an appropriate adult present only where there is an immediate risk of harm.

Both CRAE and Just for Kids Law recently wrote to the government asking for an urgent review of police strip-searching of children, but we know ministers are already aware of the problems. The Home Office is due to publish two reports later this month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which are expected to include recommendations over the use of strip searching on children and other vulnerable people by police.

In 2013, the Ministry of Justice reviewed the use of strip search on children in prison or other secure accommodation. As a consequence of that review the Ministry of Justice issued guidance stating that children must only be strip searched as a proportionate response to a real risk. Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice now collects data showing when strip search is used. It is essential that the Home Office, which is responsible for policing, follows the example set by the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons, and conducts a review of how and when children are being stripped by the police. 

Shauneen Lambe is a barrister and director of Just for Kids Law; Paola Uccellari is director of Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

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Notes:

1. Felicity Williams of Garden Court Chambers acted for JfK and CRAE in the case pro bono.

2. Under PACE Code C any one under 18 being strip searched by police should have the following safeguards: the strip be conducted by an officer of the same gender; the strip should be conducted in private; they should have a parent or other appropriate adult with them.

3. In January, 23 leading children's rights and youth justice experts, including the Children's Commissioner for England and Deputy Children's Commissioner for England, called for stripping of children in police stations only to be used as a last resort

4. Quotes in the image are from Young People’s Views on Safeguarding in the Secure Estate, A User Voice Report for the Youth Justice Board and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, 2011

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