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Petition - 17 year olds in police custody - John C. Kirk

Mar. 12th, 2013

12:17 am - Petition - 17 year olds in police custody

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Over on Facebook, someone posted a link to this petition:
Home Office @ukhomeoffice: Change the law so 17-year-olds are treated as children in custody #4Joe

Basically, there's a discrepancy in UK law: if a 17 year old is arrested by the police then they get treated as an adult, but if they are subsequently charged then they'll be treated as a child (e.g. going to youth court rather than magistrates' court).

In particular, if the police arrest a child then they will automatically phone the child's parents (or legal guardian). If the police arrest an adult then they won't, but the adult has the option of phoning whoever they want. There was a particular incident where a 17 year old was arrested, but his parents didn't know anything about it until he killed himself 2 days later. They are now campaigning for a change in the law.

I have mixed feelings about this, but I've decided not to sign the petition. I realise that this will be a very painful situation for his friends and family, and I don't want to add to that. However, if we're considering a change in the law then I think we have to consider the wider implications rather than just looking at this specific case. So, I stand by what I'm writing, but if you knew him then you may not want to read any further.

If you haven't already done so, I recommend reading the full text on the petition website and watching this Channel 4 news report. The BBC and the Manchester Evening News have also reported on this.

Basically, Joe Lawton was arrested for driving a car when he'd had too much to drink (i.e. he failed the alcohol breath test). The police held him overnight, and he chose not to phone his parents (this BBC video makes that explicit, 25 seconds in). He also didn't tell them when he got home, or when he received a court summons. Instead, while they were out he killed himself with a shotgun from the family farm. His parents are now saying that we (as a society) can't expect 17 year olds to make rational decisions in a situation like this.

I don't have a great deal of sympathy for drunk drivers, because they're putting other people's lives in danger. A car is more than just a form of a transport: it's potentially a killing machine. However, his parents were satisfied that he was responsible enough to drive.

Then there's the issue of the gun. I remember talking to someone from an athletics club a few years ago. He used a starting pistol before each race, and this technically counted as a firearm so he had to keep it in a locked safe at his house, and someone came round to inspect that safe before he could get a licence to keep the gun. So, suppose that the shotgun had also been kept in a safe and that only the parents had the key/combination to that safe. In that case, their son wouldn't have been able to use the shotgun to kill himself. Maybe he would have found another method, or maybe the delay would have given him time to reconsider; I don't know. I assume that the Lawtons followed all the relevant laws, and that they had a legitimate reason for owning a shotgun (e.g. to protect their livestock from predators). However, if they're proposing that we should change the law to protect children then maybe we should be looking at gun control instead of (or as well as) police protocol? Again, if they're saying that we shouldn't expect a 17 year old to make rational decisions in a stressful situation then should we really give them access to a lethal weapon?

Unfortunately, life doesn't work like He-Man cartoons. ("Fabulous wisdom and maturity were revealed to me, the day I held aloft my 'Happy 18th birthday' card!") In my opinion, the key job of the parents (and other responsible adults) is to prepare the child to become an independent adult by gradually giving them more responsibility. Treating them as a child until they turn 18 and then expecting them to handle everything at once isn't going to work out well. In the Channel 4 video, the parents said that he was 17½ when he died, so would another 6 months really have made a big difference? I think it would have been just as tragic if the same events had happened after he turned 18, but the proposed change to the law wouldn't help there. Thinking about my nephews, when they reach that age I'll want them to feel confident about coming to me for help if necessary. So, maybe some good can come of this, if it encourages other parents to reassure their children about this kind of situation. (I'm not trying to blame the Lawtons here, I just think there was a misunderstanding.)

Having said all that, this does seem like an odd quirk of UK law, so it seems sensible to straighten that out. The Home Office have said that it would be too expensive to change the law, but I don't know how much it would cost; I'll wait to see what comes of the High Court challenge.

Finally, there's the issue of the petition itself. I'm a bit wary of "clicktivism", e.g. the idea that you can solve society's problems just by retweeting something or Liking a Facebook post, because it encourages people to make an instinctive reaction rather than thinking things through.

In this particular case, they've used change.org for the petition. When I checked yesterday, they were aiming for 35,000 signatures but that target has now increased to 50,000. I think that the government's epetition site would have been a better choice, but that says that you need at least 100,000 signatures before the issue can be debated in the House of Commons. Similarly, the White House has its own petition site (We the People): that started out with a threshold of 5,000 signatures, then 25,000, and it's now at 100,000.

Meanwhile, there's some controversy because (apparently) change.org is a profit-making organisation who make their money from selling the contact details of people who sign petitions. The response from change.org seems to be that they are putting that money back into the business so that they can host even more petitions and make a bigger change in the world; they also think that people who support cause X would want to know about cause Y too. Looking at one of their successful petitions (Don't ask female boxers to wear skirts), I think they may be a good platform if you want a sports organisation to change its policies, but there are better choices if you want the government to change the law.

If the Lawtons relaunch their petition on the government website then I might sign it, but for now I'll stay away.