This report examines the impact of PACE from a child’s perspective which, for the first time in England and Wales, included researchers engaging with children about their legal rights while detained. The findings highlight the need for reform when viewing early stages of the criminal process from a child’s perspective. Copies of the final report and executive summary can be downloaded here.


From analysis of 3,722 electronic custody records for children, drawn from eight police force areas (in 2019 to 2021), Hope Kent found that custody officers refuse to detain people brought into custody in less than 1% of cases. While the number of children detained has significantly reduced over the past ten years, we can see children being detained inappropriately, often because the police are unable to engage with children’s services, including those that have a statutory responsibility to promote and safeguard the welfare of children in need.

With detention refused in so many cases, there is no effective gatekeeping mechanism within police custody even though this is the main gateway into an adversarial system of justice. Once detained, it is the priority for police investigators to question suspects even though, as we note, in some cases there is no evidence against the child, a parent/carer refuses to make a complaint after an argument taking place at home, or where a child detained as a ‘suspect’ is identified as the ‘victim’ prior to the interview. Access to legal advice, even if remotely at this early stage, would enable a child to challenge their detention and if problem solving and/or restorative approaches were adopted instead, this could avoid stigmatising and sometimes criminalising impact of being brought into police custody.  

Once detained, it is important to note that on average 80% of children request legal advice although, in most cases, the child’s first contact with their lawyer is not until the police interview. With children being held in detention on average for 11 hours and 36 minutes (54% are held overnight), this means that children are often having to wait in a cell for eight or nine hours without having access to their lawyer. At the end of cases, we found that 56% of children have no further action taken, and a further 5% of cases remain outstanding. After spending on average over 11 hours in police custody, it is in just 21% of cases that children are taken to court and 14% receive an out-of-court disposal.

From 32 observational case studies, which included talking to children at least once while detained, as well as interviewing those involved in the questioning of children, the majority of our young participants saw police custody as part of their punishment, which was also the view of some officers with a presumption of guilt rather than innocence. With custody being experienced by children as harsh and punitive, this fostered resentment and undermined trust in the police and the wider youth justice system, which is more likely to increase rather than reduce reoffending.


The researchers argue that a child-centred ethos needs to be adopted in police custody, requiring a ‘child first’ rather than ‘adult/offender first’ approach. Recommendations for change for children set out in the report include police custody being used as a ‘last resort’, a presumption of legal advice with restrictions on waiver, a shorter PACE clock, and requiring specialist training of all those involved with child suspects.

Dr Vicky Kemp

Principal Research Fellow,

University of Nottingham