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One of the worst things imaginable for most parents is for their child to be arrested and accused of a criminal act.

It doesn’t matter how old your child is, no-one wants to receive that phone call from the police saying their child is in custody and asking them to go to the police station immediately.

First, try to stay calm. Being arrested does not mean it is inevitable that your child has embarked on a life of criminality ... or even that they have committed a crime in the first place. It might be that they were falsely accused or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So-called ‘sexting’ is becoming a massive problem and one that can get a young person into a lot of trouble.

Criminal responsibility

In Wales (and England) the age of criminal responsibility is ten. This means that a child younger than this cannot be charged with a criminal offence and taken to court.

Children aged between 10 and 17 who commit crimes are treated as young offenders and any arising criminal case is heard in a youth court. There is a range of sentences which the court can give depending on the crime from a fine to long-term detention.

From the age of 18, young people are treated as adults by the law.  

The arrest and interview

When a young person is arrested they will usually be taken to a police station for questioning. The police must follow set rules and the custody officer will explain the young person’s legal rights to them.

They will always try to contact a parent, guardian or carer, in part because someone under 18 should not be interviewed or searched without an ‘appropriate adult’ being present – this might be a parent, relative, friend, social worker or teacher.

Remember, anyone who is arrested – including a child or young person – is entitled to advice from a solicitor free of charge. If the young person has been accused of a serious offence they should not answer questions until the solicitor has arrived.

Citizens Advice has more information about police powers.

After the arrest

The police can hold someone for up to 24 hours before they have to charge you with a crime or release you. They must apply to hold someone for up to 36 hours, or 96 hours if they suspect the person has committed a serious crime, e.g. murder. The police can hold an individual without charge for up to 14 days if they are arrested under the Terrorism Act.

What happens next

Depending on the seriousness of the offence and whether the young person admits to it, the police have a range of options:

  • No further charge
  • Community resolution
  • Youth Caution
  • Youth Conditional Caution
  • Charge.

Being cautioned

If the police have sufficient evidence to prove the young person committed the offence they will either charge them or issue them with a Caution (if over 18) or a Youth Caution (10-17 year olds). 

If a Youth Caution has been issued, the police have a legal duty to inform the local Youth Offending Team.

Being charged

It is the Crown Prosecution Service – and not the police – who decide if the case should go to court or not.

What happens next depends on the seriousness of the crime and sometimes a young person might be put into custody (on remand) until trial.

Orders on parents

If the child or young person is aged under 16 then the court has a duty to make a parental bind over or impose a parenting order, if it would be desirable in the interest of preventing the commission of further offences.  The court has a discretionary power to make these orders where the young person is aged 16 or 17.

Attending court

The UK judicial system operates a three-court system:

  • Magistrates’
  • Crown
  • Youth Court

A Youth Court is a special kind of magistrates’ court which is not open to the public or the media (although victims may request to attend). A young person between 10 and 17 will usually be tried in the Youth Court, unless the crime is extremely serious, e.g. murder, firearms offences.

Under 10s are not taken to court, but they might be given a child curfew or safety order or be taken into care depending on the severity of the crime and their family situation.

If the child is under 16, there is a statutory requirement that parents/guardians attend during all stages of proceedings, unless the court is satisfied that this would be unreasonable having regard to the circumstances of the case.

Punishment and custodial sentences

Young offenders under 17 who are in court for the first time and plead guilty may be given a Referral Order or community service.

18 to 25 year olds are treated as adults, but are not usually sent to adult prisons.

The main custodial sentence is a Detention and Training Order (DTO) which lasts from four months to two years. On release, the young person will be supervised in the community by a youth offending officer.

For more information on their rights while in custody and what to expect visit gov.uk

More information

Visit gov.uk for more information about young people and the law.

For guidelines on the sentencing children and young people visit the Sentencing Council.

Lawstuff provides easy-to-understand legal information to young people.

Last updated: 28/02/2018