Council failing in legal duty to accommodate arrested juveniles

Waltham Forest Council has failed its legal duty to accommodate arrested teenagers and prevent them sleeping in police cells while awaiting trial, a court has ruled.

Local councils are obligated to securely house suspected young offenders, in order to minimise their distressing time in custody, unless it is “impracticable” or they are a danger to the public.

But in June the Court of Appeal ruled the council did not have a “reasonable prospect” of ever being able to fulfil this duty because there are no secure accommodation providers in London.

Charity Just for Kids Law brought a judicial review against the council on behalf of a then-16-year-old boy from Waltham Forest, who was arrested in Lewisham in 2018 and spent a night in the police station because there was nowhere for him to go. The charity states it hopes to use the council as an example to criticise the lack of suitable accommodation across London.

In 2018, the Waltham Forest teen was one of 342 requests by police across London to securely house an arrested juvenile, of which only one was met. Jennifer Twite, from Just for Kids Law, said: “It is a national scandal that we do not provide proper accommodation for our most vulnerable children when they are denied bail.

“It has been known for a long time that there are insufficient secure children’s homes, and the fact that there are none in the London area is unbelievable.

“I hope that this case demonstrates [that] the current position is both unlawful and unacceptable and will lead to serious improvement in this area.”

The charity’s first request for a judicial review was dismissed in March 2020, after the court found the council had “a reasonable system in place”, but has now been granted on appeal.

Explaining his ruling, Lord Justice Rabinder Singh wrote: “Having a reasonable system in place means more than simply having a telephone service or ‘negotiating’ with the police to see if secure accommodation is really required.

“It includes at least the reasonable prospect, in practice, of being able to provide such secure accommodation in a case where it is needed.

“In practice, there is no realistic prospect of secure accommodation being available for a child in response to a request from the police.

“The system was inherently likely to fail in the sense that, as a matter of routine, the answer to a police request would be ‘no’.”

However, he added: “There simply are no units available which can realistically be used either within London or within a sufficiently close distance that a child could properly be produced in good time at a magistrates’ court.

“The stark reality is therefore that children are having to be put into police cells overnight as the norm rather than the exception.”

In the case of the 16-year-old, due to appear in court the next day, the nearest secure accommodation was in Hailsham, East Sussex.

Responding last week to the ruling, a council spokesperson said it planned to lodge an appeal “in due course” and was working with other London councils to find “a permanent solution”.

They said: “We take our duties around young people in police custody extremely seriously and their welfare needs are always the top priority.

“The nearest overnight secure accommodation found for the 17-year-old boy in this case was 90 miles. As he was expected in court the next morning, this was both impractical and not in his interests.

“We [and other councils] have put a proposal to the government of two sites in the capital that will resolve this issue and ensure young people are supported during what is a traumatic time.”

At the time of the ruling on June 30, Lord Justice Singh noted there was “no evidence” the council had applied for government funding to resolve the issue.


Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter