Can I go back to school now? False confessions and false guilty pleas in children.

‘Can I go back to school now?’ False confessions and false guilty pleas in children.

‘Although reforms may go some way to protect children from falsely confessing, children are still at risk in our criminal justice system which requires them to make decisions capable of impacting the rest of their lives, and subtly pressurises them to make those decisions a certain way.’

In 2019, we watched the re-telling of the infamous Central Park Five wrongful conviction case on Netflix, ‘When They See Us.’ Five school kids were coerced into falsely confessing to a violent rape and assault. Twelve years later they were exonerated when someone else confessed to the crime.  But why did they confess if they hadn’t committed the crime? Has this happened in the UK? And are young people still falsely confessing today?

Research shows that false confessions are not as rare as you might think, especially in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to pressure, coercion, and suggestion, and also lack maturity in judgment.  This means that children may falsely confess even under conditions that would not seem coercive to adults.  In one well-known false confession case in the UK, Colin Lattimore, Ronnie Leighton and Ahmet Salih, all under 18, falsely confessed to murder after hours of interrogation and without legal advice. They each spent three years in prison as a result of these false confessions until new evidence showed they could not have committed the murder as the prosecution alleged.

Scrutiny of the treatment of the three boys and other notable cases from the mid-1970s, such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases, helped bring about sweeping legislative changes and the introduction of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, commonly known as PACE. The question is, does 1984 PACE provide enough safeguards to account for vulnerabilities? Or is reform needed to protect children?

How effective has PACE been?

A common theme in false confessions in children is the absence of legal representation or legal advice.

The immediate thought to anyone sitting at home watching Netflix would be to question why did the Central Park 5 not ask for legal representation or advice? But like anyone not guilty of a crime, why bother engaging with legal advice if you know for certain you are innocent. A reasonable assumption made by anyone, let alone a child, unaware of the legal repercussions they may soon face. PACE 1984 introduces safeguards to protect all defendants from pressure to falsely confess. For example, detained suspects now all have the right to free legal advice and the right to be represented by a solicitor. There is far less evidence of false confessions in children (and in defendants overall) since the introduction of PACE. However, there is also evidence that the problem has not gone away and that the provision of legal advice is not a panacea for false confession. For example, Oliver Campbell, who was a highly vulnerable 19-year-old when convicted of murder in 1990, said he confessed to the murder because he was “put under pressure” to say things he didn’t want to say, and “felt scared.” He has been identified as highly suggestible, and claims that he had nothing to do with the murder he confessed to.

In addition, it should be noted that the effectiveness of legal representation can vary. Recent work has raised questions about the quality of legal representation in children, particularly in the youth court, and work is being done by both the Solicitors Regulatory Authority and the Bar Standards Board, to improve the quality of legal representation for children. 

The reforms brought about by PACE are also unlikely to protect children from feeling pressure to confess in a different way – through pressure placed on them by the legal system to admit guilt. Specifically, children often face compelling pressures and incentives to either admit guilt in exchange for a caution (and avoid prosecution altogether) or to plead guilty in court.

Incentivised false confessions – guilty pleas and cautions.

Children accused of criminal offences often have the opportunity to avoid prosecution, but only if they “admit” involvement in an offence. An admission is required to accept a caution, and is often required by diversion from prosecution schemes. As a result, children face pressure to admit guilt to avoid having proceedings brought against them. These admissions, while not as damaging as a guilty verdict in court, can have important consequences for their futures.

Where they are proceeded against in court, children can sometimes avoid a custodial sentence by pleading guilty where they would risk a custodial sentence if they proceeded to a full trial. These discounts are often thought of as rewarding those willing to admit guilt and take responsibility, but they can be equally viewed as creating a trial penalty, where defendants know that they may effectively be punished for exercising their right to a trial. 

These incentives to admit guilt create a system in which young people have to consider a variety of factors other than factual guilt when deciding whether to make an “admission.”  Young people might admit guilt to avoid court, to avoid custody, or to avoid a longer sentence, even when innocent. The developmental vulnerabilities discussed above make them particularly vulnerable to doing so.

Dr. Helm’s experimental work supports this idea by suggesting that young suspects are particularly susceptible to pleading guilty when innocent due to their cognitive developmental immaturity. These conclusions are also supported by field work in the US context (see here, for example).

This new form of coercion to admit guilt is more subtle than the pressures outlawed by PACE, but may be equally important, if not more important, in creating miscarriages of justice in children. This is particularly important since vulnerability resulting from relatively low intelligence and cognitive ability may disproportionately disadvantage youth who are at an increased risk of offending due to their socioeconomic status, family structure and wealth. The nexus between violence and poverty can enhance the vulnerability of young suspects and further negatively influence the decision-making process for a young suspect. In a recent paper in the Journal of Law and Society, Dr Helm examines these issues and concludes that children need additional protection in our criminal justice system which is heavily reliant on incentivised admissions.


So the show is over, and no, Netflix, we do not want to continue watching. The question remains, however, are young suspects, especially suspects who have limited intelligence compared to their peers, adequately protected by the UK legal system?  

Young suspects are handicapped by their developmental immaturity, yet the legal system still requires them to make decisions capable of impacting the rest of their lives, and subtly pressurises them to make those decisions a certain way.

While pressure pushes children to make these decisions a certain way, through coercion or incentivisation, children will admit guilt when innocent. More research is currently underway to help and reduce the extent to which innocent children falsely admit guilt.  Hopefully, this research can inform policy to ensure that innocent children can comfortably go back to school unharmed and with their future plans intact.

Author Haneet Parhar EBJL Miscarriages of Justice Student Research Assistant.

Follow us on Twitter @ExeterLawSchool @RebeccaKHelm and LinkedIn

For a list of Dr Helm’s academic publications on guilty pleas, see the publications page of our website:

For more information on our data and research on guilty pleas, see the guilty plea decisions page of our website:

For more information on guilty pleas in actual cases in England and Wales, search for guilty plea cases in our miscarriages of justice registry:

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