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We detain too many children in police custody for too long
Research examining the impact of PACE on the detention of children in police custody finds them left isolated for many hours.

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PACE and the detention of child suspects

New (24 May 2023) research from the University of Nottingham examines the impact of PACE on the detention and questioning of child suspects. Authored by Vicky Kemp, Nicola Carr & Stephen Farrall, the study included a statistical analysis of electronic custody-record data and observational case studies. In total, 51,504 electronic custody records were examined, 3,722 (7%) relating to children. These were drawn from eight police forces in England and Wales for two separate months (March and September) in each of 2019, 2020 and 2021. These records included information about the time children spent in custody, whether legal advice was requested and the outcomes of cases. They also contained demographic information about each child’s age, gender and ethnicity. A total of 32 observational case studies were carried out in eight custody suites in three police force areas with a view to further understanding child suspects’ experiences both while detained and during the police interview, and how they understood their legal rights.

Key findings

Police custody officers have the power not to authorise the detention of someone arrested and brought into custody if they deem it unnecessary, but the research team found that this occurred in less than 1% of cases. They also found that children were held in custody on average for 11 hours and 36 minutes (with 54% being detained overnight), and 80% requested legal advice. You can see the details in the chart I have reproduced from the report below. These are clearly very long periods of time, especially when you consider that just 21% of children were charged and 14% received an out-of-court disposal. No further action was the official outcome in 56% cases (with 5% remaining outstanding).

Children’s experiences

Children told the research team that they found the experience of police custody harsh and punitive and that it fostered resentment and undermined trust in the police and the wider youth justice system. Of most significance is the isolation children were found to experience when waiting in a cell for many hours to be interviewed by the police. It is mandatory for a child to have an appropriate adult to support them while they are detained but, generally, due to restrictions in them gaining access to police custody, their contact with the child was limited until just prior to the police interview. Similarly, in most cases where legal advice was requested, a child’s first contact with their lawyer tended to be just before the police interview.

The researchers concluded that these delays are not acceptable, not least because a child needs access to these adults as soon as practicable following detention so that they can help them to understand and exercise their legal rights.

With no action being taken in the majority of cases, the early involvement of the lawyer and appropriate adult could have led to cases being resolved more quickly or being taken out of the criminal process altogether.

The researchers highlight the concern that not only did the majority of children view police custody as part of their punishment, but this was also the view of some police officers, with a presumption of guilt rather than innocence. Formal action being taken by the police in only a minority of cases raises questions about the necessity and appropriateness of children being brought into police custody.

Instead, with cases that need to be investigated, the police could bail child suspects or arrange for them to attend a voluntary interview. In cases where an investigation is not required, problem-solving and/or restorative approaches could be adopted.

The police priority is to interview a child once they are detained, and this has led to children who have later been identified as the victim (often in domestic incidents) remaining in police custody as a suspect so that they can be questioned.

Police perspectives

From the police perspective, a main concern raised by custody officers in the three participating forces regarded the lack of contact they had with children’s services that have a statutory responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. With the police being unable to access the network of support available to children within the wider youth justice system, child suspects can be drawn into a punitive and adult-centred system of justice.


The research team conclude that that changes to PACE and enhanced legal protections for child suspects are required. They recommend adopting a “Child First” approach, which means viewing child suspects as children rather than adults and/or “offenders”, encouraging collaboration with them while they are detained, and seeking to maximise opportunities to divert them away from the stigma of coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Specific recommendations include:

  • Detention should only be used as a last resort.
  • There should be a shorter PACE clock for children.
  • There should be a presumption of the provision of legal advice and restrictions on its waiver.
  • The appropriate adult safeguard should be reviewed, and there should be support for child suspects from adults who are independent from the police.
  • There should be a different model for interviewing child suspects.
  • Specialist training should be given to all practitioners involved in the detention and questioning of child suspects.
  • There should be national collating and reporting of electronic custody-record data.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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