County Lines – What are they and why do I need to know about them?

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Created on May 03, 2019
Camilla Rents

Camilla Rents

Camilla has specialised in criminal defence work since 2010 and has particular experience in cases involving sexual offences, serious violent offences (including murder) and money laundering and fraud.

Rod Hayler

Rod Hayler

Rod has specialised in criminal defence work since 1998. He is a trial advocate of 17 years’ experience and, as a Higher Courts Advocate, he represents clients in Crown Courts and in the Court of Appeal.

What are County Lines?

County Lines is a term used to describe a situation where a vulnerable child or young person is being trafficked for criminal exploitation. The term, quite properly, covers a broad range of scenarios. However, as a criminal defence practitioner, the situation I most commonly encounter involves criminal gangs coercing and grooming children into drug dealing on their behalf. The children are commonly referred to by the adult gang members as ‘runners’ or ‘street dealers’.

The Home Office defines County Lines as:

‘The police term for urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. It involves child criminal exploitation (CCE) as gangs use children and vulnerable people to move drugs and money. Gangs establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the homes of local vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as “cuckooing”’ (

Criminal exploitation of children is a child protection issue which has existed for a long time. However, the term County Lines is fast becoming more widely recognised and the practice has extended beyond children to include other vulnerable young people (over the age of 18). This is not necessarily because the practice is becoming increasingly prevalent. Although criminal gangs may be employing the tactic more, the police are also becoming more alive to it as a safeguarding issue.

How does it work?

The criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable children employ a wide range of sophisticated and abusive tactics to groom, recruit and exploit their runners. Mostly, they target children or young people with limited availability of choice, often from disadvantaged backgrounds where physical violence, neglect and sexual abuse have featured heavily. However, children from more privileged social economic backgrounds can also be attractive options to the gang members due to their often inconspicuous and less challenging nature.

Children are, quite literally, being approached by adult gang members in the street, spoken to a few times, sometimes threatened, and then taken away from their home town. They are forced to stay in a ‘trap house’ for months at a time, given a ‘drugs line’ and permitted to leave the property only to sell drugs to users before returning to wait for their next call. They are told to store the wrapped drugs in their cheeks so that they can be swallowed if stopped by the police. Sometimes, they are shown how to insert the wrapped drugs internally, into their vaginas or their rectums. They are paid modestly; perhaps a MacDonalds, or a pair of trainers.

Often, these young people don’t feel like they have been groomed or abused. They may not feel exploited but looked after and experience a sense of belonging and security. Perhaps for the first time ever.

What does the law say?

Perhaps most importantly for lawyers, we should be familiar with the guidance surrounding this subject. We need to be in a position to, not only identify that our client might be the victim of criminal exploitation, but also advise them as to any available defences arising from that.

Invariably, those exploiting these young people will be arranging and facilitating their travel for the purposes of selling drugs. This constitutes trafficking within the definition contained at section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (“the Act”) namely:

“(1)A person commits an offence if the person arranges or facilitates the travel of another person (“V”) with a view to V being exploited.

(2)It is irrelevant whether V consents to the travel (whether V is an adult or a child).

(3)A person may in particular arrange or facilitate V’s travel by recruiting V, transporting or transferring V, harbouring or receiving V, or transferring or exchanging control over V.

(4)A person arranges or facilitates V’s travel with a view to V being exploited only if—

(a)the person intends to exploit V (in any part of the world) during or after the travel…”


Section 45 of the Act contains a statutory defence for victims of trafficking who commit an offence.

“A person is not guilty of an offence if—

(a)the person is under the age of 18 when the person does the act which constitutes the offence,

(b)the person does that act as a direct consequence of the person being, or having been, a victim of slavery or a victim of relevant exploitation, and

(c)a reasonable person in the same situation as the person and having the person’s relevant characteristics would do that act.”


What should I be doing as a criminal defence lawyer?

Familiarise yourself with this issue. Read about it. Think about how you might identify a child who is being criminally exploited as opposed to being a criminal. It may not be the professional responsibility of a lawyer to safeguard children but morally, it is. We are on the frontline. We will often be the very first person these children come into contact with following their arrest. We should be alive to the abusive situations that these children, our clients, are finding themselves in and encouraging those working within the criminal justice system to adopt an appropriate, child protection response and to recognise these children as victims, as opposed to criminalising them. Referrals to Children’s Social Care and the National Referral Mechanism should be encouraged.

There are numerous resources available online. CSE Police and Protection have published a particularly helpful ‘Toolkit for Professionals’ highlighting common warning indicators and appropriate responses. Available here –


County Lines - Case Study

Since this Case Study was produced, the case against our client has been discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service.  This decision followed a referral, at our insistence, to the Police National Referral Mechanism (NRM) which led to an investigation of the claims made by our client.  As such, it would seem that the tale, as told below, is entirely true. 

This client was looked after by Rod Hayler and Linda MacDonald and expertly represented in court by Brian Aldred

Original Article 

Old Bailey Solicitors are currently representing a young man from South London who was trafficked to sell drugs on behalf of a County Lines gang.

Our client, an 18 year old college student, was approached by an older male in a quiet street near to his home address.  The older male asked our client if he wanted to work for him.  Our client politely declined and continued on his way home.  This same older male approached our client on two further occasions.  On the third and final occasion, the older male stated to issue threats to our client.  He stated that he knew where our client lived and who he lived with.  Given that they were speaking less than 50 metres from our client’s front door, this was considered to be no idle threat.  Our client was forced to provide his mobile number to the older male.

Two days later, our client received a call from a different male.  He was provided with instructions to take a train to an area outside London immediately.  Similar threats were made and our client felt that he had no choice but to do as he was told.

Our client left a note for his mum, telling her that he was going to stay with a friend and he caught a train out of London as instructed.  He was met off the train, in an area he did not know, by another male who took him to an address, which our client described as a crack den.  Our client was instructed to wait inside the address.  Another male came to the flat and provided our client with small packages of drugs and a cheap mobile phone.  Our client would then receive instructions to supply these drugs, in return for cash, to people coming to the address.

Our client followed instructions to move from address to address and to collect drugs and to deliver the cash he had received every day over the course of the next three months.  When our client made efforts to leave or when he told one of the males in the gang that he didn’t want to be involved anymore, he was threatened with violence and the threats made about his home and his mum were repeated.

Eventually our client was stopped by police, in a car being driven by an older male.  There were drugs found within a bag in the car.  Our client had a bag of clothes which also contained a knife.  Both males were arrested.

Our client was so scared by the threats that had been made to him over the course of three months, he refused to provide detailed instructions to his lawyer at the police station and he refused to answer any police questions.  He was charged with being in possession of class A drugs with intent to supply and possession of a bladed article.  He was remanded into custody by the police and by the Magistrates’ Court.  On an appeal to the Crown Court, we were able to secure our client bail.  Only then has he been able to provide us with an account of what he experienced.  As a result, and with our client’s consent, we have notified the prosecution of the position and we have invited a referral to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in the hope that the prosecution may be discontinued.  It is our belief that our client has been the victim of trafficking and that the defence under section 45 Modern Slavery Act 2015 will apply to him.  We wait to hear whether the police or the Crown Prosecution Service will agree.

Camilla Rents

Camilla Rents

Camilla has specialised in criminal defence work since 2010 and has particular experience in cases involving sexual offences, serious violent offences (including murder) and money laundering and fraud.

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