I fought the law and the law won: the Police Ombudsman and child rights

We welcome today’s guest post by Sara Boyce, Information and Research Coordinator at Include Youth.  Include Youth is an independent non-governmental organisation that actively promotes the rights, best interests of and best practice with disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people. 

I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Few people starting a new job will have as weighty an in-tray as the new Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Dr. Michael Maguire, who takes up office today.   The scale of the challenge facing him is considerable, with much riding on his ability to turn around the very serious and well publicised state of affairs in the Police Ombudsman’s office.  At stake is the critical need to restore public confidence in the office’s ability to function as an independent police complaints mechanism, which has been seriously undermined of late.

While not wanting to detract in any way from these very serious issues that must be resolved, the issue of a lack of confidence in the office’s ability to function as an effective complaints mechanism for children and young people long pre-dates the recent crisis.   

Such have been the nature and scale of the threats to the institution itself it might be understandable for observers to dismiss this fact as somewhat of a minor side issue.  The importance of ‘getting policing right’ with children and young people, which includes the provision of an effective complaints system, cannot be overemphasised, not only because the PSNI acts as one of the main gatekeepers into the criminal justice system but also because the acceptance and legitimacy of the PSNI continues to be a critical factor in ensuring that peace is secured for future generations. 

Regrettably, since the publication of the Patten report in 1999, research has consistently shown that young people’s perceptions and experiences of the PSNI have remained negative. The findings of published research have been reinforced by consultations conducted by Include Youth and others with young people who have had direct contact with the PSNI.

Contributing to these negative perceptions is the continued non-compliance of policing, at both policy and operational levels, with international children’s rights standards.  A number of examples of such non compliance have been highlighted by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and include the lack of training on children’s rights for police officers, the use of police technologies against children and young people, including plastic bullets and tasers and the use of ASBOs against u18s.[1]  Other breaches include the disproportionate use of stop and search against young people[2] and the release of images of young people to the media.[3]

Levels of awareness of the office among children and young people would appear to contrast sharply with levels of awareness among the general public. According to the Police Ombudsman’s own polling levels of awareness among the general public are at 84 per cent[4], while by comparison joint Policing Board Police Ombudsman research in 2003 found only half of young people up to the age of 25 surveyed were aware of the office, with this figure dropping to 27 per cent for children under 16 years of age.   If anything these figures are likely to have dropped further in the intervening years, given the natural higher visibility of the office in the early days of its operation.

Coupled with a low level of awareness of the office among children and young people has been a lack of confidence in the independence of a police complaints system, particularly among young people who have been in conflict with the law; one young person articulated this scepticism as follows “I didn’t complain cos there’s no point, cos the peelers get away with everything because they are the law – they do what they want, it’s all corrupt”.[5]

Include Youth used the opportunity provided by the Department of Justice’s recent consultation on the future operation of the Police Ombudsman’s office to highlight a number of examples of  specific failings of the Office in relation to children and young people.  These include the following:

The Police Ombudsman’s office has failed to collate and report on complaints made by children and young people under 16 years of age; the lowest age bracket used for recording complaints is 16-24 years. The over representation of complaints from children and young people was acknowledged by the first Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan.[6] Yet, despite the issue being raised by a number of bodies and agencies including Include Youth, the Commissioner for Children and Young People and the independent Review of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland, the need to record and report on such complaints has not been addressed.

The Police Ombudsman’s office fails to capture age related discriminatory behaviour among police officers within its data collection systems. In its annual report for 2010-11 the breakdown of allegations by type and sub type covers a large number of discriminatory grounds, including sectarian, gender, disability and homophobic based discriminatory behaviour but excludes the age ground.  How is this possible given the equality obligations on the Police Ombudsman’s office under section 75?

Following on from clarification sought by the Northern Ireland Policing Board from the Police Ombudsman’s office[7] it would appear that the Office’s default position regarding complaints from all under 18s is not to record such complaints unless a young person is accompanied by an ‘appropriate adult’.  We believe that such a practice is entirely without justification on the basis of either principle or practice.  Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, along with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment No 12 provide clear guidance to all public authorities regarding the rights of children and young people to have their voices heard.  In law and practice children aged 10 can be held criminally liable, and many young people are living independently by the age of 16 or 17 years of age. 

The issues highlighted above are not new and have been highlighted by a range of NGOs, inspection bodies, reviews and academics.  The central problem is that to date they have not been addressed – in our view this has been a very serious failure by the Office as an increasing lack of confidence among young people in a police complaints system will inevitably have a corrosive effect on relationships between the police and young people generally.

On a positive note we are encouraged by the appointment of Dr. Michael Maguire as the new Police Ombudsman – given his background in and understanding of the wider issues affecting children and young people in conflict with the law we believe that he possesses the skills, expertise and commitment to ensure that the ongoing reform process within the Police Ombudsman’s office addresses the serious issues highlighted above.    We and no doubt others working in the area of children and young people and policing will be urging him to make sure that happens without delay.

[1] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2008) Concluding Observations. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, paragaraphs 21, 31, 35 and 80

[2] Recent research found that the second most common form of contact young people had with the PSNI was that of being stopped and searched (29%). Source: Achieve Enterprises and Public Achievement (2010)  Beyond the Margins Building Trust in Policing with Young People, p18

[3] Northern Ireland Policing Board (2011) Human Rights Thematic Review Children and Young People, NIPB, p56

[4] Police Ombudsman’s office Northern Ireland Annual Report 2010-2011 Table 29

[5] Include Youth (2012) Young Voices consultation with young people in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre and Hydebank Young Offenders Centre

[6] Interview with Nuala O’Loan, (former) Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, cited in McAlister et al (2010) op cited at note 1

[7] Minutes Northern Ireland Policing Board’s Human Rights and Professional Standards Committee 11 January 2012