Statutory agencies 'failed to stop unlawful use of force against children in privately run centres'
The unlawful use of restraint was widespread in privately run child jails in Britain for at least a decade, a high court judge has ruled for the first time.
Mr Justice Foskett said statutory agencies had failed to take action to stop the unlawful use of force against the large numbers of children held in the network of secure training centres run by G4S and Serco.
He singles out the youth justice board for its "apparent active promotion" until 2007 of restraint techniques which were subsequently banned.
The high court judge stops short of legally ordering the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to inform hundreds, if not thousands, of potential victims of their right to claim compensation. But he does say that ministers need "to consider whether something ought to be done".
In a damning ruling, Mr Justice Foskett, said: "The children and young persons sent to [secure training centres] were sent there 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."
The judicial review case was brought by the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) to challenge Clarke's refusal to contact former detainees dating back to 1998 when the first privately run secure training centre opened in England.
The judge said the legal action had shone a light into a corner that might otherwise have remained in the dark and described the decade-long abuse of children in custody as "to say the least, a sorry tale".
The legal battle follows a second inquest last year into the death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood, who was found hanging in his room at Hassockfield secure training centre, where he was on remand, in 2004. The inquest concluded that a serious system failure had given rise to an unlawful regime at the jail.
The use of several "distraction'' restraint techniques, which involve inflicting pain with a severe blow to the nose or ribs, or by pulling back a child's thumb, were suspended in 2007 before being banned in 2008. The use of physical restraint to control teenagers in child jails for the purposes of "good order and discipline" was also ruled to be unlawful by the court of appeal in the same year.
Mr Justice Foskett said the "fullest explanation" had not yet emerged as to why the widespread unlawful use of restraint went unchecked for so long and why there were apparently so few complaints from the victims.
He concluded that it was highly likely that large numbers of children were unlawfully restrained in child jails for at least a decade between 1998 and 2008 and that they would have "simply accepted it as part and parcel of the routine".
But he made clear that it would take only one former detainee to secure official confirmation that they were unlawfully restrained to open the door to a personal injury compensation claim. He goes on to caution the youth justice board not to destroy any relevant records.
The judge said it was not possible to make a precise estimate of the number of victims, but he noted that at one stage restraints of children were running at 350 a month ? of which 20% to 25% were probably unlawful.
Carolyne Willow of CRAE said: "We are, of course, deeply disappointed that the judge did not order the government to inform potential victims of unlawful restraint of their right to seek compensation. But the plain truth is that this is the only civilised course of action now open to ministers and the YJB in the face of such a devastating judgment. It would simply be scandalous for them to continue to deny the extent or gravity of rights violations and the failure of the state to protect children when they were at their most vulnerable ? locked up and away from their families."
John Drew, the YJB chief executive, said they would consider the ruling: "In particular, we want to make sure that we use this judgment to inform our continuous work to improve safety and to protect children and young people in custody," he said.
"Over the past few years, significant progress has been made to provide increased protection for young people in custody, with closer scrutiny and monitoring of restraint, improved complaints and advocacy procedures for young people, and the increased transparency provided through publication of the restraint data on a regular basis."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We welcome the judgment which recognises the government has not been obstructing access to justice for those who were formerly detained in secure training centres."
She said that children in custody were some of the most vulnerable young people in society and their safety was the highest priority. "Restraint should only ever be used against young people as a last resort where it is absolutely necessary to do so and where no other form of intervention is possible or appropriate. The system has undergone significant change and improvement in recent years, including through the introduction of restraint minimisation strategies, removal of certain techniques and improved monitoring."