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Changing the Way the Police Treat Teens in Custody: A Case Study from the United Kingdom


This case study sheds light on the efforts to challenge the treatment of 17-year-olds as adults in police custody in the United Kingdom. The case exemplifies the impact of strategic litigation in addressing violations of children's rights. By sharing this story, the aim is to inspire advocates worldwide to consider similar approaches to combat children's rights violations.


Hughes Cousins-Chang, a London teenager with no prior involvement in legal issues, was arrested on suspicion of mobile phone robbery on April 19, 2012. The seventeen-year-old spent 11-and-a-half hours in police custody, enduring a strip search. Unfortunately, his mother was not informed about his incarceration until four hours after his arrest, despite his repeated requests to speak with her. Although released without charge, the treatment of Cousins-Chang raised concerns within his family.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act and its associated "Code of Practice" allowed the police to treat 17-year-olds as adults in custody, which contradicted the classification of individuals under 18 as children in other aspects of the criminal justice system. Advocates and lawyers argued that this disparity was an anomaly and contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory.

The cases of Joe Lawton and Edward Thornber, two boys from Greater Manchester who tragically took their own lives after being detained by the police, further highlighted the issue. Their parents were not informed of their detention, intensifying public concern about this legal inconsistency.

Bringing the Case to Court:

Chris Chang, Hughes Cousins-Chang's uncle, initiated a legal challenge in the High Court against the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The objective was to challenge the treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody as adults instead of children. Just for Kids Law, supported by Caoilfhionn Gallagher from Doughty Street Chambers, represented Hughes Cousins-Chang in the case. Other organizations, including the Coram Children's Legal Centre and the Howard League for Penal Reform, also intervened in the proceedings.


The High Court ruled that the Code of Practice was unlawful and that the Home Secretary had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for private and family life. The court found that the Code needed revision to differentiate between the treatment of adult detainees and those under 18 years old. Consequently, 17-year-olds detained by the police would be treated as children instead of adults.

The ruling brought a sense of accomplishment for Hughes Cousins-Chang and his family. Chris Chang expressed that the case demonstrated the potential for individuals to challenge and change their circumstances, refusing to accept the status quo.

Despite the court's decision, concerns remained regarding the limited implementation of changes. Campaigners argued that the treatment of 17-year-olds in police custody remained similar to that of adults in various aspects. Tragically, eight months after the High Court ruling, Kesia Leatherbarrow, a 17-year-old, took her own life after spending three days in a police cell. Her mother believed that if Kesia had been placed in local authority care, as offered to those under 17, she might still be alive.

Ongoing Advocacy:

Just for Kids Law initiated a judicial review against the Home Office, aiming to secure equal rights and protections for 17-year-olds held in police custody, aligning them with the rights enjoyed by under-16s. The organization's director, Shauneen Lambe, criticized the Home Office for failing to extend these protections to 17-year-olds, emphasizing the urgent need for action.

While the Home Office acknowledged its commitment to protecting young people in police custody, advocates continued


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