It emerged earlier this year that a 15-year-old girl was strip searched at her London school. The story has ignited the debate surrounding police powers, particularly with regard to intimate searches on children.

What happened?

In March, it was revealed that a 15-year-old black girl was strip searched at her school by two Met police officers in 2020. The child, known as ‘Child Q’, was removed from an exam and taken to the East London school’s medical room. She was strip searched by two female officers who were looking for cannabis. She was made to expose intimate parts of her body and told to remove her sanitary towel. No other adults were present and her parents were not contacted. No drugs were found.

In another similar case, a 15-year-old girl being held in custody was strip searched in front of two male officers, again without an appropriate adult present. Her mother says her child, who has autism, was “absolutely distraught” and later tried to commit suicide. Her family is now bringing a civil case against the Metropolitan Police.

What are the police rules for strip searching children?

But what, exactly, are the laws regarding strip searches?

Strip searches can be conducted on individuals under the age of 18, but there are very specific rules that must be followed – rules that were broken in the aforementioned cases.

Firstly, a search that exposes intimate body parts must take place in the presence of an appropriate adult, if the suspect is under the age of 18. The only exceptions are where the search is urgent because the child is at risk of serious harm, or where the child has said they do not want the appropriate adult to be present and the adult agrees.

An appropriate adult can be a parent, relative, guardian or social worker. Police officers cannot act as an appropriate adult. If no appropriate adult is available, then police officers may consider moving to a location where one is available, such as at the child’s home.

Also, the child’s parent or guardian must be informed about the strip search before it happens.

General rules for strip searches

There are also some general rules that must be followed during strip searches, regardless of the individual’s age:

  • An intimate strip search is only allowed after an individual has been arrested
  • There must be reasonable grounds for the strip search, such as the suspected concealment of drugs or weapons
  • The strip search should only be undertaken and overseen by police officers of the same sex as the suspect
  • All searches must be conducted out of public view
  • Officers should complete the search as quickly as possible
  • Those who are being searched should not be required to remove all their clothes at the same time
  • There must be at least two people present in addition to the person being searched
  • Officers should make attempts to consult a supervisor before an intimate strip search

If the search does not expose intimate parts of the body, it is called a ‘More Thorough Search’ or MTS search. This might involve the removal of a T-shirt. In these instances, the search must still be conducted out of public view, but can take place in a police van, so long as the search cannot be seen by anyone outside the van.

How often are children strip searched?

Data obtained by the BBC found that more than 13,000 strip searches of young people under the age of 18 had taken place over the past five years. This number could be higher, as not all police forces responded to the Freedom of Information requests.

There is evidence to suggest that the police break the rules in nearly a quarter of all strip searches involving children. Data gathered by the Children’s Commissioner for England found that of the intimate strip searches forced on children between 2018 and 2020, 23% of cases did not have an appropriate adult present.

Always get a solicitor at the police station

If you are arrested, you should always ask to see a solicitor when you get to the police station. This is free for everyone. A solicitor can advise you about your rights, including your legal rights regarding strip searches. There are laws in place to protect the dignity of those suspected of a criminal offence. As criminal defence lawyers, we see it as our duty to uphold these rights.

Call us on 0333 009 6275. We are available to take your call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We offer free police station representation.

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