Help for Children Affected by County Lines

Posted on: 4 mins read
Victoria Pogge von Strandmann

Partner, Head of Public Law and Human Rights

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There’s been lots of discussion in the media recently about the dramatic increase in children being exploited for the purposes of county lines. But what support is available to children affected by this form of modern day slavery?

For free legal advice get in touch with our Public Law Solicitors.

What is County Lines?

County lines is a term used to describe a form of criminal exploitation. It usually involves children being recruited and exploited by gangs by being forced to move or store drugs or money in different areas within the UK.

Many children are kidnapped as part of their exploitation and many are subjected to violence, intimidation and abuse. The official definition of county lines was set out by the Home Office guidance issued in September 2017 and updated in 2020.

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County Lines as a Form of Human Trafficking

Children who have been exploited in the above way are likely to be victims of human trafficking. For those under 18, the law states that in order to be recognised as a victim of human trafficking, there must be two elements present.

First, the child must have been recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received. As county lines often involves an element of movement, this first requirement will almost always be met.

The second requirement is that there has been exploitation. This can include forced criminality, such as being forced to commit drugs offences. It’s therefore likely that any child affected by county lines is a victim of human trafficking.

Why it’s Important to be Recognised as a Victim of Human Trafficking?

The very nature of county lines exploitation means that children affected will often be caught up in criminal activity. Recognition as a victim of human trafficking can be a protective factor against criminal prosecution, and may assist Criminal Defence Lawyers in the event that a prosecution of the child, for example for drugs offences, is brought.

For any children who have already been prosecuted and convicted of offences connected with county lines, being recognised as a victim may assist in overturning such a conviction through a criminal appeal. Our team of Public Law Solicitors specialise in assisting children to obtain recognition as victims of trafficking and have lots of experience of working alongside Criminal Appeals Lawyers in order to assist victims of county lines to clear their names.

As well as helping to protect children against prosecution, or assisting with criminal appeals, being recognised as a potential victim of human trafficking means that a child is entitled to access a raft of support from the state, including safe accommodation, counselling and education.

How to Get Recognised as a Victim of Human Trafficking

A child has to be referred into something called the National Referral Mechanism. When frontline agencies such as the police, social services, or the Home Office are aware of indicators that a child has been exploited for the purposes of county lines, they have a duty to refer a child into the National Referral Mechanism.

This should happen as a matter of urgency. If the relevant front line agency doesn’t make this referral - as can sometimes happen – that’s a failure which can be challenged by way of Judicial Review. Our Public Law Solicitors can help to challenge such failures.

Once a referral into the National Referral Mechanism has been made, there is a 2-stage process for being recognised as a victim of trafficking. Within 5 days, something called a 'reasonable grounds' decision should be made. This will either be positive or negative. The threshold for a positive decision at this stage is low, and our Solicitors can assist in challenging negative decisions.

After a positive reasonable grounds decision, a final or 'conclusive grounds' decision should be made within 45 days. If the decision is positive, then a child is formally recognised as a victim of trafficking. If that decision is negative, a child must bring any challenge to that decision within 3 months at the latest. Our Public Law Solicitors are well equipped to assist with these types of cases.

Sometimes children are not referred into the National Referral Mechanism at all, and aren’t recognised as victims of trafficking, and then at a later stage are re-trafficked by criminal gangs.

Some children may have compensation claims against public bodies if there was a failure to identify them as a victim, and a failure to investigate their trafficking claim. Our Public Law and Human Rights Lawyers can assist with investigating these types of cases.

What other Support Should be Provided?

As well as being recognised as a victim of trafficking, social services should carry out assessments to work out what additional support a child who has been victim to county lines may need. If social services fail to carry out such an assessment, our Public Law Solicitors may be able to assist with a legal case. If a child is in need of safe accommodation, and social services are failing to act, then we can also assist with this type of case.

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