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5 Sep 2016

Howard League challenges magistrates’ courts on unlawful detention of children

The Howard League for Penal Reform is challenging the legality of a series of decisions by magistrates’ courts that led to a vulnerable and frightened child being held in police custody for two nights over the non-payment of fines.

The charity is seeking permission to judicially review the decisions and processes that led to the 15-year-old boy being detained, even though there is no legal power to jail a child for not paying fines.

A court does not have the power to order the arrest of a child for non-payment for the good reason that it is recognised that children do not have the means to pay fines.

In May 2016, a staff member at the children’s home where the boy was living called police to report that he was acting aggressively. When officers arrived, they checked the Police National Computer and found that he was the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant for non-payment of fines.

The balance outstanding was recorded to be £129. The child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had understood that staff at his care home had been deducting sums from his pocket money to pay off the fines, although it is not clear if this money had been passed on to the court.

Police arrested the boy on the grounds of the outstanding warrant. He was taken into custody and detained at a London police station. After two nights in police detention the boy was taken to court and no further action was then taken against him.

It is understood that the original fines were imposed by Croydon Magistrates’ Court, but for reasons that are not yet clear, the warrant for the child’s arrest was issued by Thames Magistrates’ Court.

The boy’s experience in police custody was particularly frightening and distressing. He suffers from a constellation of mental health problems.

The Howard League was made aware of the boy’s case after his mother contacted the charity’s legal advice line. The charity argues that, as a child in the care of the state, living in a children’s home and under the supervision of the Youth Offending Team, the boy should never have been kept overnight in police custody. He should have been returned to the children’s home, or other suitable local authority accommodation should have been found.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that the best interests of the child should be paramount and children should only ever be detained as a last resort where absolutely necessary.

The Howard League has worked closely with the police in recent years and has successfully reduced the number of children being arrested. The charity has highlighted the risks of children being detained overnight at police stations.

However, in discussions with the Howard League, senior police officers have raised concerns about their perceived inability to prevent overnight detention where magistrates issue warrants not backed for bail in respect of children.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is the second time in only a few weeks that we have had to take action on behalf of children who have been unlawfully detained following warrants for non-payment of fines issued by magistrates’ courts.

“It is disappointing that a charity has to act on behalf of these children when the law is clear that there is no power to issue such warrants. We know that locking up children in police stations overnight is frightening and damaging, and it wastes police time.

“Something is going terribly wrong when judicial processes lead to children being locked up for not paying fines that they have no means to pay. Urgent action is required to ensure this does not happen again.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Howard League has worked closely with the police in recent years to highlight the risks of children being detained overnight at police stations. The charity’s latest report on the issue, Overnight detention of children in police cells, can be viewed online.
  3. The Howard League’s report, Criminal Care: Children’s homes and criminalising children, can be viewed online.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
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