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Strip search of children and PACE Code C

PD v Chief Constable of Merseyside Police [2015] EWCA Civ 114

Children are entitled to an appropriate adult when strip searched. Protections contained in Code C,  Annex A Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984 apply to all circumstances where children are stripped by police officers, including when clothing is removed for their own protection under section 54(4) Police and Criminal Evidence  Act (PACE) 1984.  The only time an appropriate adult is not required to be present is “in cases of urgency, where there is a risk of harm to the detainee or to others”, as in the appellant’s case.

Details

PD was a 14-year-old girl with a history of mental illness, who had been a victim of sexual abuse. She was arrested in 2010, after being drunk and abusive outside a kebab shop and taken to Wirral police station in handcuffs. The custody officer ordered that her clothes should be removed because he thought PD could use the elastic in her underwear as a ligature. She was forcibly stripped of all her clothes and dressed in a safety gown by three female officers. She was then placed in a cell in which she could be observed by means of internal CCTV. Efforts to contact her mother were not made until after PD had been stripped.

The Court of Appeal found that the removal of clothing for the purposes of preventing self-harm did fall within the scope of Annex A, stating that: “It is entirely to be expected that Annex A [of PACE Code C] should protect all those in custody whose clothing is removed under a power given by section 54” [paragraph 35]There had been no breach of Article 8 as the police had complied with “both the spirit and letter of the code” [paragraph 43]. On the facts of this case the action taken was an urgent necessity; the appeal was dismissed.

Commentary

The Court expressed concern “that it should have been thought appropriate immediately to remove the clothes of a distressed and vulnerable 14 year old girl without thought for alternative and less invasive measures to protect her from herself” [paragraph 44]. Alternative measures could include placing the child in a monitored CCTV room and checking them at regular intervals; or sitting with the child until the appropriate adult arrives.

The judgment also recognises [at paragraph 7] the special position of children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and highlights that “children in custody are vulnerable and special care is required to protect their interests and well being” [paragraph 7], further approving R (HC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2013] EWHC 982 (Admin).