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High Court quashes decision by magistrates who decided defendant’s age by sight

The High Court has quashed a decision by a Youth Court that led to a male charged with pickpocketing and who claims to be 16 languishing in Wormwood Scrubs, because the magistrates thought that he looked older.

The boy claims to be 16 years old, but Hammersmith Youth Court decided that he was 18, without going through the proper age-assessment procedure or even giving him a chance to produce evidence of his age.

The Divisional Court decision, which follows a legal challenge brought by London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, has procedural implications for criminal courts and particularly youth courts where a defendant appears and there is a real dispute in relation to age.

In R (on the application of M) v Hammersmith Youth Court, Lord Justice Irwin said: “There is… no doubt that it is not appropriate for a magistrates’ court to do as they did in this case. In cases where there is a real doubt as to the claimed age, the proper course is to make directions for an age assessment to be conducted.”

Further, he said, the magistrates had acted unfairly in denying the boy an adjournment so that he could present evidence to the court about his age.

As a result of the Divisional Court ruling, the boy has been transferred to appropriate local authority accommodation and an age assessment is being carried out.

On 17 March 2017, the claimant was arrested for theft and being in possession of a false identity document. After charge, he was taken to the youth court, where he asserted that he was 16 years old. The magistrates disputed this and, purely on the basis of how he looked, they determined that he was an adult under section 99(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

As an ‘adult’, the case was sent for trial to the Crown Court and he was remanded into custody as an adult at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

Criminal defence solicitor Perveen Hill, of Hodge Jones & Allen, acted for the claimant. She says: “It is shocking that the magistrates made such an important decision, merely on the basis of a visual impression. We will now work with the relevant authorities and our client to ensure that the proper procedures are followed and that our client is given the opportunity to present evidence in respect of his age.

“It is clear that caution must be taken when dealing with youth cases where age is a real dispute. We cannot solely rely on the appearance of a defendant to determine age and I would urge all criminal practitioners to challenge decisions to ‘deem’ a defendant’s age where the correct procedures are not followed.


Notes for Editors

Hodge Jones and Allen

  • Hodge Jones and Allen is one of the UK’s most progressive law firms, renowned for doing things differently and fighting injustice. Its managing partner is Patrick Allen, recently awarded a lifetime achievement award by Solicitors Journal.
  • For 40 years’ the firm has been at the centre of many of the UK’s landmark legal cases that have changed the lives and rights of many people.
  • The firm’s team of specialists have been operating across: Personal Injury, Medical Negligence, Industrial Disease, Civil Liberties, Criminal Defence, Court of Protection, Dispute Resolution, Employment, Family Law, Military Claims, Serious Fraud, Social Housing, Wills & Probate and Property Disputes.
  • In 2016, the firm launched Hearing their voices – a campaign to raise awareness and build conversations around the issues and the injustices we might all face.