• The Guardian

Child victims of human trafficking prosecuted despite CPS rules



Young British victims of human trafficking who have been forced to sell drugs in county lines operations are being charged and prosecuted despite guidelines against doing so, the Guardian can reveal.


The Modern Slavery Act gives young people and vulnerable adults the right to raise a “section 45” defence, which states they were trafficked and forced to commit offences.


The Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) internal policy states that where a child or young person might have been trafficked and exploited through criminal activity there is a strong public interest in stopping the prosecution.


But the Guardian has identified a series of cases where the CPS has continued to prosecute British children and young adults for county lines despite having a positive decision from the national referral mechanism (NRM) that designates them a victim of human trafficking, or being strongly suspected of being a victim of human trafficking.


Quick guide

What is ‘county lines’ and who are the victims?

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As lawyers and campaigners expressed their alarm at the findings, a Guardian investigation found cases including:


A teenage boy with a learning disability convicted after being found to be in possession of drugs, despite the police finding threatening text messages on his mobile phones that showed he was being instructed by someone else. After he served his sentence, he was referred to the NRM and got a positive decision. The gang had, however, found the boy and retrafficked him and he was arrested again for offences relating to their drug-dealing operation. Despite the positive NRM decision and the fact he repeatedly told police the same gang had forced him to commit the offence, the CPS pursued a prosecution. He was acquitted.

A young adult, whose defence lawyer said had clearly been groomed by a gang, who went to court without an NRM referral. When asked why a referral had not been made, the prosecuting counsel stated it was not the police’s job to provide his defence. When raised in open court, the judge admitted he did not understand how the NRM operated and initially suggested defence lawyers should address their concerns to the jury. The CPS eventually dropped the case, but by then the boy had been in custody for several months with some of those involved in exploiting him.

A 17-year-old with multiple special needs arrested in possession of a large amount of cash and class A drugs. The boy was receiving a minimal education at a pupil referral unit, where one of the professionals working with him had raised concerns about his association with older people who were linked to drug-related activities. Several other agencies had also flagged the boy’s vulnerability to exploitation. Despite this, the first responding agency initially refused to make a referral to the NRM.

Sarah Collier, a public law solicitor at Simpson Millar, condemned the trafficking victims’ treatment, saying: “The Crown Prosecution Service has a duty to protect victims of trafficking and modern slavery, yet there is mounting evidence to suggest that in many cases those affected are being failed by the system.

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