The government’s drive to tackle antisocial behaviour has
been severely undermined by a judge’s ruling that police
can’t use force to remove unaccompanied children from curfew
zones, writes Gordon Carson.
The Home Office and Metropolitan Police are already lining up an
appeal against the decision by Lord Justice Brooke, saying police
should be allowed to use “reasonable force” to take
But human rights organisations and children’s charities
have hailed the ruling as a victory for children’s
The case was brought by a 15-year-old boy, known as
“W”, from Richmond, southwest London, who argued that
police should not be allowed to treat him “like a
criminal” just because he was a young person.
It centred on a power granted to the police under section 30 of
the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, which allows them to remove
anyone under the age of 16 from a public place between 9pm and 6am
if they are not accompanied by an adult, even if they are not
suspected of behaving badly.
The Metropolitan Police, Richmond Council and the Home Office
argued that the power allowed for the use of force, but this was
disputed by the boy and the human rights organisation Liberty,
which represented him in court.
Lord Justice Brooke, in backing the boy’s argument, said
he was “entirely satisfied” that the power to remove
under-16s was meant to be “permissive, not coercive”,
and that the police could only take young people home if they
And his ruling has created major problems for councils and
police forces that use the curfew powers to crack down on
antisocial behaviour. A survey conducted by Liberty before the case
started found that 80 per cent of police forces in England had
exercised powers under section 30 of the Act. Dispersal areas
varied in size from single streets to one south London zone home to
several hundred thousand people, according to Liberty legal officer
In London, the Metropolitan Police uses the powers in a
dispersal zone created in the country’s entertainment
capital, the West End. The force says it will continue to use the
powers to take under-16s home where necessary, and says
“child protection and vulnerability are a
A spokesperson says that in “appropriate
circumstances” the Met will also use powers in section 46 of
the Children Act 1989, which allows police to remove children to a
place of safety if they have “reasonable cause to believe
that a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant
The London Borough of Camden Council in north London has also
made use of the powers for unaccompanied under-16s, but, it claims,
“only if they were taking part in anti-social behaviour that
causes harassment, alarm or distress”.
In a three-month period over summer 2004, eight under-16s were
removed from a zone in the Somerstown area. But now it says it is
“awaiting clarification” about how the powers can be
used after being informed by the police that they are unable to use
Although councils say the powers have been necessary to reduce
antisocial behaviour – Richmond council leader Tony Arbour
was concerned about the message that last week’s ruling would
send to “potential young yobs” – young people are
firmly against curfews.
A NOP of 1,000 10- to 16-year-olds in October 2003 found that 70
per cent of young people said police should not be given the power
to move them on if they had done nothing, while 80 per cent said
curfews weren’t fair because not all young people cause
The Children’s Society says Lord Justice Brooke’s
ruling shows that the government must listen more closely to the
“heartfelt and justified criticism of some of its antisocial
Kathy Evans, the charity’s policy director, says:
“It is time to stop targeting and demonising young people as
the cause of the problem and include them properly as citizens and
members of their communities.”
As “W” himself admits, he has “no
problem” with being stopped by the police if he has done
Ironically, police in Richmond are not exactly prolific in
enforcing the powers – they have only removed one under-16
from dispersal areas in the borough.
Gask says this proves that curfews are not needed. “It
shows the police already have ample powers to deal with young
people causing trouble,” he says.
He has been provided with first-hand evidence about the impact
of the curfew areas, having been contacted by a woman who runs a
youth project located within the Richmond zone.
“She was appalled to find her project was in the middle of
the zone and at a time where people leaving there were liable to be
picked up,” he says.