Thank you to everyone who attended our webinar on the Rights and Obligations of Teenagers and Young Persons last night. You all helped to make it such a friendly and welcoming environment for discussion. It was wonderful that everyone was willing to share their ideas and that we had such a wide range of perspectives, from those of us with a background in the law to those of us wanting to understand it better in order to protect ourselves or our children.
The presentation was divided up by questions which we then split into smaller groups to discuss. Lots of interesting things came out of these discussions. Those of us with a background in the law were able to elucidate certain points and answer others’ questions. For instance, until yesterday I would have said that the answer to whether a 25-year-old would be sent to an adult prison was an obvious ‘yes’; but I found out in the webinar that there are actually prisons specifically for 18 to 25-year-olds. I found this very interesting and didn’t quite understand it, until Esra, a paralegal at De Jure, pointed out that these years form a stage of key development in our lives when most people are going to college or university, so prisoners of that age should be provided with extra support. We also had a really interesting conversation about data protection and whether a police superintendent could legally ask a GP to release information on one of their patients. Stephan, a parent attending the webinar, made the point that unless the superintendent had a court order, he would be asking for this confidential medical information for his own use, which means it should not be released. It makes you realise the psychological power of a uniform and a high rank; but also that we should remember that it is only a uniform, and try not to be intimidated, especially as young people.
We also talked about who we would call first if we got into trouble with the police, and a lot of us said our parents. Eric, another of the parents at the webinar, asked what the best thing would be to do after receiving a call like that from your child. The answer was to get in touch with a solicitor – lawyers understand the police and how they work much better than we do. They’ll be able to do things like obtain disclosure from the police about what exactly it is you’re being questioned for, and advise you on how best to answer those questions. What’s more, if you’re under 18 and in police custody then the police should inform a responsible adult of your whereabouts immediately and you should have a responsible adult present as well as the free legal aid to which you are entitled. Paul, who was leading the discussion, also stressed the importance of our right to remain silent – and in general it seemed to me that the main takeaway of the webinar was to know our rights and to exercise them. For instance, most of us have heard of ‘stop and search’, but lots of people (including me until yesterday) haven’t heard of ‘stop and account’. This is when the police can stop you in the street and question you, but you’re not legally obliged to answer their questions unless they believe you have been engaging in anti-social behaviour. You should always make sure to ask them on what grounds they’ve stopped you. If you think you’re being detained unlawfully then you should take note of their badge number and get in touch with a solicitor.
At the beginning of the seminar we discussed whether Joseph, a 17-year-old, was a teenager, young adult, youth, or child. Most of us said he was a teenager and I don’t think any of us said he was a child. But of course legally he is a child, as we were reminded: the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as ‘anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday.’ We then discussed whether a 10-year-old could be arrested and, although it seems strange, since the age of criminal responsibility is 10, they can. However, the seriousness of a child’s crime will play a large part in the decision over whether to arrest and prosecute. The recent example in the UK of the murder of a 13-year-old boy by two 14-year-olds is a case of an extremely serious, and also clearly pre-meditated, crime committed by children. Because of the age of the defendants, the counsel didn’t wear their wigs and gowns, which is an instance of the special circumstances under which children are tried in youth courts. Others are that they will be tried earlier so as to avoid long and stressful waiting periods, and if sentenced will be sent to special secure centres for young people rather than prisons.
Most arrests of young people over the last year have probably been due to the increased number of protests happening up and down the country, notably those over the death of Sarah Everard and the police brutality at her vigil, and those of the Black Lives Matter movement. As well as this, police have been arresting children for violating lockdown rules and also fining them, despite fines only being applicable to adults aged 18 and over. It’s safe to say there is a heightened level of tension between young people and the police currently. It’s important to know your rights so you are never taken advantage of, but it’s also important to take responsibility for your own behaviour and decisions: who you are choosing to associate yourself with, what kind of environment you are placing yourself in. Obviously these decisions are far more difficult to make for some people than they are for others, and there are systematic inequalities and injustices at play in that discrepancy; nonetheless, Ilirjana, who has worked with young offenders before, pointed out the harsh truth that while being in the wrong place at the wrong time is frequently offered as an excuse, it is rarely accepted as one.
Paul wishes to draw attention to the fact that there was a disproportionately small amount of BAME people who attended the webinar, and wants to encourage more BAME people to attend in future. The Black Lives Matter protests have generated lots of discussion in the UK media about the relationship between the police and British black people. It’s tempting to think of police racism and brutality as an American problem, but Steve McQueen’s recent series ‘Small Axe’ incisively documents the history of police injustice towards London’s West Indian community. Our history informs our present day; the two are not divorced from one another but are symbiotic, so our world is still shaped by inequality. While it is unfair that the onus should fall on young people to take precautions rather than rely on the system to be fair, prioritising your safety is the most important thing. It’s really important to get to know your rights. Attending free, informative webinars like this one is a good place to start. Paul hopes to hold many more in the future, as he believes everyone should have access to justice and wants to contribute towards achieving this goal.
Author: Isobel Macleod
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