Acceptable behaviour contract

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In the United Kingdom, an Acceptable Behaviour Contract (ABC) is an early intervention (generally following two warnings but prior to an Anti-Social Behaviour Order) made against individuals who are perceived to be engaging in anti-social behaviour. Though they may be used against adults, almost all ABCs concern young people.[1]

The contract, drawn up and agreed upon by the agencies concerned in consultation with the individual, contains both negative and positive conditions, detailing respectively what behaviour the individual will cease to partake in and what activities the individual will pursue to change their behaviour.

Though ABCs are not legally binding [this is untested in the courts as yet], breach of an ABC is often used as evidence to support an application for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, breach of which is a criminal offence. In agreements, children are asked to not only sign that they will not perform the identified behaviour(s) but that they recognise that breach may result in application for an ASBO and that, if the ASBO is breached, they may face imprisonment of up to 5 years and/or a fine up to £2,000.

The process for an ABC will first be a letter, sent to parent(s) in the case of a minor, which will identify the existence of behaviour but not what specifically it consisted of, associate the person with the behaviour, and then 'invite' the person, and parent, to a meeting at which an ABC will be discussed. Failure to attend, it is often warned, may lead to sanctions, the most common being loss of local authority or social housing tenancy by the person or the parent(s). The use of these with such groups is more likely, therefore, than with those in private-rented or owned properties.

There is little national data on the ways in which ABCs have been used in the UK. At least 19,000 have been rolled out, mainly with children aged 10–18 years.

ABCs were first used in Islington in the early 2000s,[2] and rolled out nationwide in the following years.

Little attention has been paid to the rights issues around ABCs (focus mainly having been on ASBOs). However, the children play campaign body, Fair Play for Children Association, after being contacted by a parent in Islington in 2002, published an article 'Easy as ABC?' [3] which detailed 2 cases, and raised serious concerns about the children's rights and civil liberties aspects of these contracts.

Fair Play surveyed local authorities subsequently and found a very wide range of practice, from virtual non-use onwards. Local authority solicitors seemed divided on the human rights aspect, some saying that use of ABCs had been considered against obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, others that it had not.

The legal status of ABCs has hardly been considered. The claim is made that they are not legally binding, a moot point, for why then are children warned their parents may lose tenancies? The question of coercion must arise.

What is the human rights status of an ABC? The UK has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights directly into its domestic law, The Human Rights Act 1998,.[4] The relevant Articles of the Convention may well be nos. 8 (respect for private and family life), 11 (freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others), and 14 (secured without discrimination on any ground) but the principal Article against which use of ABCs might best be judged is Article 6.1:

"In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgement shall be pronounced publicly by the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice."

The question must arise, is the deployment of an ABC option a means of determining someone's civil obligations? The sending of a letter to a person, or parent, may be argued to be the first stage of such a process, the threat of sanctions where used must lend weight to such a view. If this view is correct then the process must also take account of the person's rights. The question arises as to whether ABC processes as generally described and used, comply with A6.1. Many local authority solicitors had not, in the above survey, considered A6.1 at all.

The popularity of ABCs with government is that they are much easier to achieve than ASBOs and there is the aspect that they are for use as a means of avoiding involvement with the criminal law, especially per the young. However, that they have been signed by children as young as 11 not because the child recognised alleged wrongdoing but because of threat of loss of parent's tenancy, and that children have signed away a fundamental right of freedom of association, must raise concerns. In particular the lack of reference to the HRA 1998 and the need for an independent scrutiny of a case, is a serious matter. Not only do children especially need to understand why they are being asked to sign an ABC, but also their interests and rights cannot be subordinated to e.g. politically popular objectives or "easier" solutions to perceived problems of public order.

Claims that ABCs prevent engagement with the criminal law may be countered with a view that other forms of informal intervention which do not involve coercion and also target identified individual behaviours have been given neither the support nor prominence of the ABC afforded by government. The lack of detailed study of ABCs renders the suspicion that they can be used as an 'easy option' to "sort out" neighbourhood problems with infringement of basic rights of those "accused". This does not say that ABCs have not been used to proper and good effect, but that their vague legal basis and possible misuse are matters for public concern especially as the most-targeted group are the young, under 18 years.

If, as analysed, an ABC is a determination of civil obligations, damage is done to children's understanding of, and to, the Rule of Law as the basics of a fair and just society if the pre-requisites of the Rule of Law are flouted in obtaining a signed ABC.


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