An amendment made to the Criminal Justice & Courts Bill has closed an historic legal anomaly, which meant that 17-year-olds were not given the same rights as other children in police custody.
The move means arrested 17-year-olds will have to be transferred to local authority accommodation, rather than being detained at police stations overnight as currently happens.
The government had previously made efforts to improve protection for 17-year-olds in custody: last October, police codes of practice were changed to require an appropriate adult be called to help a 17-year-old in custody.
Further changes mean a person responsible for the welfare of the 17-year-old, such as a parent or guardian, are now informed that they have been detained.
Campaigners said the anomalies were to blame for three deaths in the past three years.
One of those was 17-year-old Kesia Leatherbarrow, who was found dead in December 2013, shortly after being released from police custody, where she had been held for three days and two nights.
Shauneen Lambe, director at Just for Kids Law, which has campaigned and taken legal action on the matter, said the government’s “change of heart” on the matter is welcome.
“It is just a shame that it took so long, and it was only after we had begun legal proceedings, a second time, that ministers finally acted,” she said.
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau said that the all-party parliamentary group for children's inquiry into children and the police heard distressing evidence of children's experiences of police custody.
“For many their time spent in a police cell was frightening and daunting,” she said.
“Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 17-year-olds are children and should therefore be afforded the same rights and protections as their younger peers.
“We therefore welcome the government's decision to address this inconsistency in the law, as recommended by the all-party group and others in the children's sector.
“We urge the government to continue to ensure children – whatever their age – are treated as children first in all aspects of law and policy governing police practice."
Kesia’s mother, Martina Brincat-Baines, said she was “relieved” that “Kesia’s Law” will be passed.
“Kesia was extremely vulnerable and being kept in a police cell for so long would have had a devastating impact on her,” she said.
“She should have been moved to local authority care where someone could have looked after her properly.
“I hope that this legal change will prevent any other family suffering as we are."