According to a ruling today by the aptly-named Lord Justice Moses (pictured), childhood now ends a year later than it did yesterday, at age 18. The change in the law essentially governs whether police officers tell mummy or not when (if) you get arrested.
The BBC reports that 75,000 17-year-olds are taken into police custody every year. The law used to say that a 17-year-old should be treated like an adult, but a compelling case led by a young man, Hughes Cousins-Chang, persuaded the legal bigwigs to change their mind.
The official reasoning follows that treating 17-year-olds as adults is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which in turn is informed by the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. (See, the big bureaucracies are useful for something.) But the personal stories behind the high court case are much more interesting.
Hughes Cousins-Chang himself, who is now a sixth-form student in London, was detained for 12 hours by police and strip searched, but his parents were not told. Much more emotive are the stories of Ed Thornber and Joe Lawton, told by their parents. Ed was arrested in 2011 for possessing 50p’s worth of cannabis on holiday in Cornwall. His mother told the Guardian that he was advised by police in Cornwall that he would receive a formal warning when he got back to his home in Manchester. But…
“…On 13 September 2011, he was served with a court summons. When my husband and I came home from work, Ed didn’t tell us anything. The next day, he went out to some woods nearby and hanged himself. He didn’t know the summons had been issued by mistake. We didn’t know anything about it. We have seen a transcript of the police interview [in Cornwall]. Ed was asked if he wanted a solicitor. He wouldn’t know what one was for.”
Joe Lawton has a similarly sad story. He was arrested for drink driving and subsequently killed himself. Both sets of parents told the court that their sons would be alive today if they had been able to help.
The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees with the changes, but the Home Office does not. Rather callously, it estimated that calling in an “appropriate adult” to help where necessary would cost the country about £20m.
Bottom line: a 17-year-old has a right to privacy, just like anyone else, but the goalposts shift if such a right starts to take lives.