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Under 18s – what are your rights if the police seek to strip search you?

‘Child Q’ is a 15-year-old Black girl who was strip searched, whilst on her period, without a parent or trusted adult present. The reason? Because staff ‘smelt drugs’ in her proximity.

We want to be clear that what happened to Child Q should never have happened. The action the school and then the police took was wholly inappropriate on so many levels, not least given the way she was treated by the school and police but because she was innocent of any possession of any drugs and that in itself is a shameful injustice on a person so young and vulnerable. To be searched in any way there had to be reasonable grounds to suspect and to suggest it as because she “smelt of cannabis” without any other reason is simply wrong.

The purpose of this blog is to set out young people’s rights in relation to searches, including strip searches. However, even if there had been an appropriate adult present, what happened to this child was unacceptable.

Adultification bias

Institutional racism all too often leads to police and other authority figures presuming that Black young people are guilty. This is compounded by the ‘adultification bias’, where Black children are perceived as older than they are and therefore treated inappropriately for their young age.

‘Child Q’ has been incredibly brave in sharing her experiences in the Serious Case Review that followed this traumatic experience. We are grateful to be able to include some of her thoughts here, which demonstrates just how impactful incidents like this are:

“Someone walked into the school, where I was supposed to feel safe, took me away from the people who were supposed to protect me and stripped me naked, while on my period.”

“…But I’m just a child. The main thing I need is space and time to understand what has happened to me and exactly how I feel about it and getting past this exam season.”

“…… I need to know that the people who have done this to me can’t do it to anyone else ever again. In fact so NO ONE else can do this to any other child in their care.”

What are under 18s’ rights when stopped and searched? 

We focus here on the rights of children, meaning young people aged under 18. We understand that simply ‘knowing your rights’ is often not enough to protect children in circumstances like those experienced by Child Q. However, we hope this will act as a helpful summary of young people’s rights.

1. A search by police

The police must have a lawful ground to search you in the first place. Please see our previous blog outlining your rights here. The STOP & SEARCH Statistics And What You Need To Know If Stopped.

2. A ‘more thorough search’

There are different types of searches. A ‘more thorough’ search is one where you are required to remove more than just an outer coat, jacket or gloves, or items which are concealing identity. The provisions for more thorough searches are include in PACE Code A, Para 3.6.  An example of this would be being asked to remove your trousers or t-shirt, but not your underwear.

In these circumstances, there must be reasonable grounds for requiring the removal of the clothing items. This should be done out of public view, such as in a police van or at the police station.

3. A search requiring exposure of intimate parts of the body (commonly known as ‘strip search’)

This is a search where a person removes some or all of their clothing and intimate parts of their body are exposed. This is the type of search that Child Q was subjected to.

There is a high threshold for such a search, which should only be used when necessary and reasonable. A police supervisor should always be consulted. A search of this type must take place out of public view or in a police station, but not in a police vehicle.

The requirements for this type of search is set out in Paragraph 3.7 of PACE Code A. This makes clear that they must not be used as a routine extension of a less thorough search, and cannot be used simply because nothing was found in the initial search.

4. An intimate search

This is a search where the intimate parts of someone’s body are physically examined. This is by its nature incredibly intrusive. PACE emphasis that ‘the intrusive nature of such searches means the actual and potential risks associated with intimate searches must never be underestimated’. This demonstrates the very high threshold for these searches.

A specific approach to consent should be taken in conducting these searches. This means that a parent or guardian must give consent, as well as the child. If the child is under 14, then parental consent alone is sufficient. This is contained in Para 2B, Annex A, of PACE Code C.

Is consent needed for the police to search a child?

Shockingly, there is no specific provision requiring parent or guardian consent for a more-through search or strip search. Consent from the child is not required also. This is something that it being campaigned on by many and has recently drawn wider public attention.

When should an Appropriate Adult be present?

Where a child is subject to a more thorough search, strip search or intimate search, an Appropriate Adult should be present. An Appropriate Adult is someone supporting a child in an interaction with the police, facilitating communication and ensuring their rights are upheld. This is often a family member, and otherwise should be a professional who is independent from the police and specially trained.

If a child feels uncomfortable with an Appropriate Adult being present during a search, it can be conducted without the Appropriate Adult in the room. However, this should only happen where:

a) both the Appropriate Adult and the child agree with this approach; and

b) where the consent of the child is obtained with the Appropriate Adult present.

Worryingly, data shows that the prevalence of strip searching of children without Appropriate Adults present is high. From data gathered from freedom of information request by Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE) in 2013, strip searches occurred without Appropriate Adults present in 45% of cases. More recent data is not currently available and the Metropolitan Police does not record searches in a way which distinguishes properly between different types of searches.

In very urgent circumstances, where there is imminent risk of harm, an intimate or strip search can be conducted without an Appropriate Adult being present. However, this should be a very high threshold and should not be happening routinely.

Help with these issues 

If you are young person or family member seeking support for a young person at risk of being criminalised or being investigated by the police, our Specialist Youth Team are available to help. If you are seeking support after an interaction with the police, and believe you may have been searched unlawfully, you can contact our Civil Liberties team.

Talk to one of our expert solicitors today on 0808 271 9413 or request a call back online.