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Seventeen-year-old Adults: The Legal Anomaly

Seventeen-year-old Adults: The Legal Anomaly

On the evening of 9 August 2012, 17-year-old Joe Lawton was driving home from a party when he was stopped by the police. He was found to be driving over the legal alcohol limit and was taken into police custody. When he arrived at the police station, he was offered the opportunity to contact a family member if he wished – he turned this down in the belief that there was ‘nothing that anyone could do’. After being held overnight in a police cell, he was charged with drink-driving. Two days later, he committed suicide and was found by his parents with the police charge at his feet.

His parents are in the full belief that, had they been informed of their son’s arrest, they would have been able to provide emotional support and reassure him that everything would be fine. After all, that is what parents do when their child is in a difficult situation. Whether serious or trivial, they should not have to go through such turmoil alone.

According to almost all British law, a child or young person is defined as someone under the age of 18. This definition has consequences far beyond the requirement that a child should be tried and convicted in a youth court. It is a rule that can be witnessed in innumerable areas of society. The right to buy fireworks, purchase cigarettes, vote and get a tattoo are all restricted to those who are 18 and over. This classification is also recognised in the fundamental areas of civil law – if a child between the ages of eight and 17 enters into a contract beyond that which is beneficial to them (such an apprenticeship or education), they may ‘opt out’ at any time they wish. This is purely due to the risk that a young person may not understand the contract into which he has entered, thereby providing another form of legal protection.

In a court of law, Joe Lawton was at an age where, if summoned to be a witness, he would automatically be classed as ‘vulnerable’ and be eligible to ask for special measures [1]. Legally speaking, Joe was a ‘young person’ – over the age of 14 and under the age of 18.

However, during his stay in the police station, Joe was treated as an adult. Whilst those a year younger than him would have had their parents contacted, as well as the automatic (and mandatory) right to have an appropriate adult with them, Joe was not included in this category. He was not denied the right to contact his parents, but he had the option to turn it down – which he did.

Additionally, his right to an appropriate adult was at the discretion of the police who held him. The police in Joe’s case acted fully within the codes of practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and were therefore procedurally correct. According to Code C para 1.5 of PACE

If anyone appears to be under 17, they shall be treated as a juvenile for the purposes of this Code in the absence of clear evidence that they are older.

It is worth noting that, once he had been charged, Joe would have been treated as a child again through the rest of the proceedings. The reasoning behind this entire ethic is inconsistent at best and, at worst, absent.

Considering that the vast majority of 17-year-olds are dependent on their parents, many still living at home and in full time education, is it wise to allow individuals at this age to have the option of contacting their parents if they have been arrested? Few teenagers at this age would inform their parents that they received a detention at school or disciplinary at their place of work, so the belief that they would be willing to inform their parents that they were being held in a police cell (even if they wanted to) is almost absurd.

Additionally, in the event that a 17-year-old decides not to tell his parents where he is due to shame or fear, his parents run the risk of wondering just that: where is he? It is not unknown that many parents have been left in a panic when their child has failed to return home, with the reason being that their son or daughter has been held at a police station for 12 hours and the parents have not been informed. Parents, guardians and carers alike have a legal obligation to keep children safe. If this anomaly cannot be rectified for the rights of a 17-year-old, can it not be solved for the rights and responsibilities of the ones who look after them?

The terminology used in PACE to describe a suspect under the age of 17 is itself inconsistent with most other areas of the law, using the term ‘juvenile’ as opposed to ‘child’ or ‘young person’. However, its usage in the above section of PACE is also dissimilar to the scarce references made to ‘juvenile’ in practitioner books. Described as ‘convenient shorthand’ for someone under 18 in Blackstone’s Criminal Practice 2012, the term ‘juvenile’ appears to have adopted a completely independent meaning under PACE – the result is that those who cannot legally be sued or sit on a jury are expected to make decisions about their legal rights at a time when such rights are, arguably, at their most important.

So what is being done about this ‘legal anomaly’? Joe Lawton’s parents are currently fronting a campaign to change the law, so that 17-year-olds remain classed as children throughout criminal proceedings. At the same time, an inquest has been recently held for Edward Thornber, another 17-year-old who committed suicide after receiving a court summons for possessing cannabis worth no more than 50p. Although the facts of this case do not directly relate to his experience in custody, submissions were made by the campaign group Inquest relating to the grave need for 17-year-olds to be supported when in contact with the criminal justice system [2]. These submissions were revisited by the charity Just for Kids Law in a judicial review currently being heard by the High Court (commenced late February 2013).

Perhaps the fact that a judicial review has been accepted to be heard at the High Court suggests that this legal challenge is generally needed. If not to ensure the safety of those legally classed as ‘young persons’ in other aspects of the law, it will surely provide the consistency which is desperately needed to maintain the image of a watertight justice system.

The fact that 17-year-olds become eligible to drive may mean they feel more independent and they undoubtedly act more grown up than all the other ages under the ‘child’ and ‘young person’ label. However, they remain at an age where many actions legally require the assistance of an adult. With this in mind, can the government genuinely trust teenagers to reach a mature decision on an act that could affect them all the way into adult life?

This article was originally published in April 2013.

Alice Sheen was Called to the Bar at Middle Temple in October 2012, and is currently seeking pupillage.


  • [1] Coroners and Justice Act 2009 s98 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/25/section/98. Special measures can include, but are not limited to, the use of a screen, wigs and gowns being removed, providing evidence through a TV link and having the assistance of a communication aid.
    [2] http://www.inquest.org.uk/ – ‘The devastating consequences of treating 17 year olds in police custody as adults’
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