What Happens in the Beginning, Matters in the End: Achieving Best Evidence with Child Suspects in the Police Station

AuthorPiers von Berg,Kate Gooch
Published date01 August 2019
Date01 August 2019
Youth Justice
2019, Vol. 19(2) 85 –101
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1473225419868840
What Happens in the Beginning,
Matters in the End: Achieving Best
Evidence with Child Suspects in the
Police Station
Kate Gooch and Piers von Berg
During the last 30 years, the way in which children give evidence in the criminal justice system in England and
Wales has been radically transformed. These reforms have, however, neglected child suspects in the police
station. Recent piecemeal reforms to the statutory regime for children in police detention have overlooked
a critical stage of the criminal justice process: the police interview. This article critically analyses the policy,
practice and law surrounding police questioning of child suspects. It demonstrates that the absence of child-
specific guidance when interviewing child suspects is not only out of step with wider reforms, but carries real
risks regarding the effective communication and participation of child suspects.
children, evidence, interviews, police, rights
Effective communication is the bedrock of the legal process . . . Check that all
parties understand . . . the meaning of the questions asked and answers given
during the course of the proceedings, otherwise the process of law is at best
seriously impeded. At worst, justice may be denied.
(Judicial College, Fairness in Courts and Tribunals 2012)
How evidence is obtained from children in the criminal justice system – as witnesses,
complainants, suspects and defendants – has come under increasing attention and
Corresponding author:
Kate Gooch, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK.
Email: kg637@bath.ac.uk
868840YJJ0010.1177/1473225419868840Youth JusticeGooch and von Berg
Original Article
86 Youth Justice 19(2)
scrutiny over the last 30 years. Published in the wake of the Cleveland Inquiry, Dame
Butler-Sloss’ (1988) report recognised the questioning of children as a specialist skill
requiring training, preparation and appropriate execution. Subsequently, the Achieving
Best Evidence (ABE) guidance (Ministry of Justice, 2011) was designed to assist police
officers in securing accurate and reliable testimony from child witnesses and victims. In
court, child witnesses and victims may have the support and assistance of an intermedi-
ary and ‘special measures’ under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. In
addition, special hearings are now required to agree the ‘ground rules’ of questioning and
thereby transformed it. These changes have been largely confined to obtaining evidence
from vulnerable witnesses and complainants, and only recently expanded incrementally
to such defendants with the availability of live links and the recognition of the Advocacy
Training Council’s toolkits as ‘best practice’ (Criminal Practice Directions [2015] EWCA
Crim 1567, 3D.7–8).
Although more can be done to improve compliance with the ABE guidance and the use
of special measures (Charles, 2012), their mandated use is an important statement about the
vulnerability of children and their continuing maturation. No equivalent safeguards and
training such as the ABE guidance exist or apply for child suspects interviewed by the
police. This failure is consistent with the wider picture of the treatment of child suspects in
police custody where children are treated first and foremost as offenders and as mini-adults
(Dehaghani, 2017; Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue
Services (HMICFRS (formerly HMIC), 2015, 2019). HMIC inspections have repeatedly
criticised the failure to transfer children to local authority accommodation after refusal of
bail, the inadequate provision of support by appropriate adults, and the unsatisfactory ways
of assessing and recording risk to children (HMIC, 2015, 2016; HMIC et al., 2011;
HMICFRS, 2019). In addition, a high-profile campaign coordinated by Just for Kids Law
and the Howard League for Penal Reform culminated in the landmark case R (HC) v.
Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Commissioner of the Police of the
Metropolis [2013] EWHC 982 (Admin), paved the way for significant statutory changes in
order for 17-year-olds to be treated as juveniles and not adults (see Gooch, 2013).
Such reforms are welcomed, but have overlooked a critical aspect of the process: the
interrogation of child suspects. This is a significant oversight. At time of writing, over
60,000 children are arrested and taken to the police station each year, where the vast
majority, if not all, will be interviewed (Ministry of Justice, 2017). The Youth Justice and
Criminal Evidence Act 1999 recognises that children under the age of 18 are ‘vulnerable’;
however, limited consideration has been given to the extent to which this might influence
the responses of child suspects in the police station. Yet, the interview is the first point at
which a suspect might provide an exculpatory or inculpatory account on record from
which many pivotal decisions may then flow such as the commencement of criminal
This article represents the first attempt to consider whether the existing law, policy and
practice regarding police interviewing of child suspects in England and Wales is fit for
purpose. While the available literature focuses on police interviews generally (see, for
example, Griffiths and Milne, 2006; Soukara et al., 2009; Walsh and Bull, 2010;
Williamson, 2015), few studies have considered the special position of child suspects

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