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Publication of Policing Authority-funded study on Children’s Rights and Police Questioning: A Qualitative Study of Children’s Experiences of being interviewed by the Garda Síochána
Ireland’s first study into children’s experiences of their rights during police questioning has been published today (Wednesday 24 February 2021). The original study, funded by the Policing Authority was carried out in the UCC School of Law by Professor Ursula Kilkelly and Dr Louise Forde (now Brunel University London). Professor Kilkelly and Dr Forde outline the study and highlight its insights in this new blog post.
Upholding Children's Rights
Under the Children Act 2001, children as young as 10 can be questioned by the Garda Síochána when suspected or accused of being involved in a criminal offence. While the situations vary from case to case, children must make a series of decisions about their legal rights in circumstances that can be unfamiliar, stressful, and sometimes frightening. Research indicates that children’s age and stage of development make them particularly vulnerable during police questioning. Unaware of the importance of this right to legal advice, children may decide not to avail of this right for reasons of expedience. They can be more suggestible than adults, and have difficulty understanding the information they are given and the questions being asked.
These circumstances require specific procedural protections to be in place to ensure their rights are understood and protected in a manner that also protects the integrity of the criminal process. Article 40 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the rights to which children are entitled and the Committee on the Rights of the Child have provided substantial guidance on how these rights are to be applied in practice, emphasising that they must be appropriate for children. At the European level, the Guidelines on Child-Friendly Justice and the EU Directive on procedural safeguards for children who are suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings (from which Ireland has opted out) strengthen the child-specific guidance in this area. Many of these rights are set out in the Children Act 2001 and the Treatment of Persons in Custody Regulations but Ireland also has a legal obligation to ensure that these rights are upheld in practice.
An Important and Original Insight into Children's Experiences
The research presented in Policing Authority Report PDF sought to document the experiences of children questioned by members of the Garda Síochána, and consider the extent to which children’s rights are protected during police questioning. To this end, 20 children between the ages of 14 and 18 told us about their experiences. To complete the picture, members of the Garda Síochána, lawyers and parents were also interviewed. In co-operation with the Garda Research Unit, nine members of the Garda Síochána participated, along with four solicitors who represent children and three parents/adults acting in a supportive role for children were also interviewed. While a small-scale study, whose results are not intended to be representative, the research provides an important and original insight into children’s experiences of their rights and importantly, makes recommendations for how these rights might be better protected.
The study found that the experiences of children being questioned by members of the Garda Síochána aligns with research in other countries in several respects. It found that the process of interviewing children in police custody can be complex and raise many important issues relating to children’s exercise of their rights.
The study highlighted examples of positive practices by members of the Garda Síochána such as adapting practices and the environment to make them more child-friendly. It also identifies a number of areas where practice could be improved. Key concerns that arose during this study concerned children’s access to information and legal advice, children’s treatment during questioning, the nature of the environment, children’s capacity and understanding and the role of parents and others who support children during the process.
Substantial Supports Needed
It is clear from the research that children need substantial support to navigate the process of police questioning and to exercise their rights. Children experienced difficulties understanding information provided to them and the questions posed, and many chose not to avail of their right to access legal advice. Particularly serious concerns arose around the treatment of some children by members of the Garda Síochána, especially with regard to allegations of physical ill-treatment during arrest and while in Garda custody. There were often practical difficulties in relation to parents’ attendance at interviews, and a lack of clarity around the role they were expected to play. Overall, it was clear that children’s experiences could often be substantially shaped by the approach of individual members of the Garda Síochána, positive and negative.
The study provides important insights into children’s experiences of police questioning in Ireland, and of the way in which their rights are protected. While it is clear that some Gardaí make significant efforts to ensure that their approach to interviewing children is appropriate to the age and needs of the child, and that lawyers equally understand the significance of their role in protecting the rights of the child, there is a lack of consistency across the board, with some children having extremely negative experiences. The study makes a number of recommendations as to how practice could be improved, including training, improving facilities and developing appropriate resources to aid communication and children’s experience of police questioning. Children should have the opportunity to contribute to this process. Consideration should be given to the making legal advice mandatory for children so that their rights and the integrity of the criminal process are fully protected. It is also clear that further research is needed to ensure that the law and policy framework and Garda practice continues to develop, and to ensure that children’s rights are protected and upheld.
The researchers are grateful to all the participants, who shared their experiences and expertise with us during the process and to the Policing Authority for supporting the research.
You can read the full report, "Children’s Rights and Police Questioning: A Qualitative Study of Children’s Experiences of being interviewed by the Garda Síochána", on the Policing Authority's website: https://www.policingauthority.ie/assets/uploads/documents/Children%E2%80%99s_Rights_and_Police_Questioning_-_A_Qualitative_Study_of_Children%E2%80%99s_Experiences_of_being_interviewed_by_the_Garda_S%C3%ADoch%C3%A1na.pdf
Press release: https://www.policingauthority.ie/en/news/policing-authority-publishes-childrens-rights-and-police-questioning-a-qualitative-study-of-childrens-experiences-of-being-interviewed-by-the-garda-siochana