Thousands of Children Unlawful Restrained in privately-run secure training centres
by Carolynn Gallwey, Bhatt Murphy Solicitors
The High Court has delivered a scathing judgment on the use of physical force on children detained in Secure Training Centres (STCs), finding that hundreds – very possibly thousands – of children were assaulted between 1998 and July 2008 and may have a case for assault against the private companies who run them.
This case was brought by the Children\'s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and has a long and disturbing history. In 2004 two children died in STCs. 15 year old Gareth Myatt died at Rainsbrook STC, which is run by G4S and 14 year old Adam Rickwood was found hanged at Serco-run Hassockfield STC. Gareth Myatt, who was 4’10” and weighed 6½ stone, choked to death whilst being restrained by three prison officers after refusing to clean a sandwich toaster. Just hours before Adam’s death by hanging, STC staff had restrained him for refusing to go to his room and had subjected him to a “pain compliance technique”. Pain compliance involves actions such as inflicting a sharp blow to the child\'s nose or ribs or yanking back their thumb.
The families of both boys fought long legal battles to bring to public attention the truth about what had happened to their children. It was also established that as well as concerns about excessive force, the use of any force at all on Adam was actually banned by the Rules that apply to the running of STCs (the Secure Training Centre Rules 1998) and was therefore unlawful. The STC Rules say that reasonable force should only be used as a last resort and not simply to enforce “good order and discipline” (GOAD). It seems that for a full decade that was either ignored or misunderstood by the staff employed by Serco and G4S. Just as worrying was the fact that the Youth Justice Board (YJB), who have overall responsibility for making sure that children in custody are properly cared for, seem to have been confused about what was and was not allowed under the Rules.
The government’s response to the findings of unlawful force in relation to the death of Adam Rickwood was to try to change the Rules to make it lawful to use force on children simply for good order and discipline. That attempt was rejected by the Court of Appeal in July 2008. As a result, the position in law remains that the use of physical force on children in STCs, simply for the purposes of good order and discipline, was unlawful.
The purpose of the case brought by the CRAE was to try and compel the Ministry of Justice to contact potential victims of breaches of the STC Rules to tell them that they had been the victims of unlawful uses of force, so that they could exercise their right to seek redress including if appropriate compensation. The judge decided that there is no legal obligation on the Ministry of Justice to contact victims as he considered that justice could still be achieved if victims of unlawful restraint came forward now. The judge noted: ‘It probably requires just one former detainee, looking back at his or her experience in an STC and having conducted the necessary preliminary inquiries, to pursue a well-publicised claim and others will be alerted to the potential of pursuing matters’. He went on to identify the possible claims that could be brought: “the most likely cause of action for any detainee who was restrained unlawfully would be a claim for personal injuries (including psychological damage) based upon an assault or series of assaults”.
The sheer numbers of children who might be affected is staggering. In the CRAE case, the court estimated that the force used in as many as a quarter of incidents was unlawful. It was estimated that each month force was used an average of 350 times across the four STCs. These figures suggest that there may have been as many as 85 incidents of unlawful force every month, which adds up to possibly more than 1,000 incidents per year. This went on for a period of 10 years. It is likely therefore that there are many hundreds of young people who were subjected to physical abuse in STCs prior to 2008 (and possibly as late as August 2010), in an environment where they were supposed to be safe.
The judge in this case noted that these children “were sent [to STCs] because they had acted unlawfully and to learn to obey the law, yet many of them were subject to unlawful actions during their detention. I need, I think, say no more”.
Bhatt Murphy Solicitors acted for the CRAE in this recent case and we also represented the families of Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt in their many and various legal battles. We are now working with CRAE to try and contact those people who may have been affected, as suggested by the judge. However, there is likely to be a fairly limited time period for any further cases against the Ministry of Justice to be commenced. Anyone who was restrained simply for “good order and discipline” and/or subjected to a “pain distraction technique” in an STC between 1998 and July 2008 (or possible August 2010) may wish to seek further advice and information about their rights. Anyone who would like further information about this case and the possible consequences can contact CRAE at 94 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF or Carolynn Gallwey at Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, 27 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN, 020 7729 1115