The Relevance of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for ‘County Lines’ Criminal Drugs Cases

11 Jan 2018

Angelina Nicolaou of One Pump Court considers the recent use of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in prosecutions for drug operations which use the ‘County Lines’ distribution model.

Angelina is currently undertaking pupillage in our Crime and Immigration teams. She previously worked in solicitors firms handling criminal cases and civil actions against the police. She will be available to accept instructions from April 2018.

The Relevance of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for ‘County Lines’ Criminal Drugs Cases

December 2017 saw the first use of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) to target and criminalise actions of individuals involved in large drug networks which run ‘county lines’ operations. On 5 December 2017, Mahad Yusuf and Fesal Mahamud entered a guilty plea at Swansea Crown Court to the offence of trafficking a young person for the purposes of exploitation[1]. The pair also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.

What is county lines drug dealing?

Drug gangs from within cities are expanding to deal Class A drugs in rural and coastal towns in what is being termed ‘county lines’ drug dealing. One of the many incentives for this expansion of operations is the comparatively less intensive policing that these areas get.

Members of a drug network set up a base in a rural or coastal town, either by occupying a premises by force or violence, or using property belonging to local addicts, who are then paid in drugs.

Individuals in higher positions within a drug network remain based in a city and deal with logistics of taking drug orders from customers, usually using a single phone number which stays the same, and then transporting children and vulnerable adults to the towns to act as ‘runners’ for moving drugs and money around.  A National Crime Agency report claims that most runners are boys aged between 14 and 17 years old, and they are frequently groomed with gifts and money. The use of children is important as they are less likely to be known to the police, and would receive more lenient sentences if convicted of drug offences.

There is a real concern that the county lines model of drug distribution is a form of criminality that has at its very core the exploitation of young and vulnerable people. The NCA report highlights: “Some vulnerable individuals are trafficked into remote markets to work, whilst others are falsely imprisoned in their own homes, which have been taken over (cuckooed) using force or coercion”[2]. In response to the nature of these practices the police have had to increasingly consider the use of the trafficking and slavery offences found in the MSA 2015.

How does the Modern Slavery Act 2015 apply to high level members of a drug gang?

Under section 2 of the MSA 2015, a person commits the offence of human trafficking if they arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to that person being exploited. This section specifies that travelling can include travel within the same country, and it therefore applies to the transport of young and vulnerable people who are being taken from cities to coastal and rural towns for the purposes of exploitation.

The meaning of exploitation covers a variety of different scenarios outlined in section 3 of MSA 2015. Section 3(6) holds that exploitation can refer to the provision of “services of any kind” from children and vulnerable persons. Whether or not a child or vulnerable person has been exploited in this way requires a consideration of whether an adult or a person without illness or disability would be likely to refuse to be used for such a purpose.

An individual who uses children or vulnerable people within the county lines drug distribution model could therefore face being charged with a human trafficking offence as well any relevant drug offences. The maximum sentence on indictment for either slavery or human trafficking is life.

How does the Modern Slavery Act 2015 apply to those who have been exploited to provide services for a county lines drug network?

Because of the nature of this type of criminal activity, many practitioners may find themselves dealing more with cases which involve the bottom end of the county lines drug network, which in many cases may be children and vulnerable adults who are being prosecuted for street level dealing in the rural areas. An important consideration will have to be whether these children or vulnerable adults have been trafficked for the purposes of committing these offences. Suspected victims of human trafficking should be referred to the National Referral Mechanism for a formal determination as to their status.

Before a matter reaches the court, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must be alive to any indicators that the accused is a victim of trafficking. The CPS has published their policy on the correct approach in these circumstances, and notes that where it may be that an offender has committed an offence out of compulsion arising from their trafficking or slavery situation, consideration should be given as to whether it is in the public interest to prosecute such an individual.[3]

If the matter has been charged, defence practitioners should be alive to the same considerations so that if necessary representations could be made after charge to attempt to divert the matter back to the CPS for a review of their charging decision, or dismissal applications can be made at court.

If the matter reaches trial, it is important to note that section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act provides a defence for individuals who are the victims of human trafficking, in relation to some offences. The defence is applied differently depending on whether the accused is a child or an adult, but in both instances as a defence it is less difficult to establish than the common law defence of duress.

For an individual under 18 years old, they would have a defence if they:

(a)   Commit an offence as a direct consequence of their being a victim of slavery or relevant exploitation; and

(b)   A reasonable person in the same situation and having the person’s relevant characteristics (including their age) would have committed the offence.

For an individual over the age of 18, they would have a defence if they:

(a)   Commit an offence because they are compelled to do so,

(b)   They are compelled as a result of slavery or relevant exploitation; and

(c)    A reasonable person with relevant characteristics in the same position as the person would have no realistic alternative to committing the offence.

Notably, Schedule 4 of the Act lists a number of offences to which the section 45 defence does not apply, and this includes a variety of firearm offences.

Notwithstanding the protections found within the MSA, defence practitioners may find themselves facing a number of practical difficulties when confronted with a case concerning a potentially trafficked child or vulnerable person within a county lines drug case. Many trafficked victims often do not self-identify as such, or may have fears disclosing what has happened to them to the authorities, or even to their own lawyers. However it is for advocates to be alive to these realities and be aware of the mechanisms in place in order to best assist potential victims. For instance, in respect of children, it is not necessary to have the consent of the child in order for them to be referred to the National Referral Mechanism, where the question of whether they are a victim of trafficking can then be determined.

In November 2017 the National Crime Agency provided a conservative estimate that there are around 720 county lines currently operating across England and Wales[4]. Increased policing efforts in this area are likely to generate more and more cases which sit at the interface of the criminal law, and the Modern Slavery Act 2015.


For more information on County Lines drug operations, see the BBC Three Documentary ‘Drugsland’:

For more information on defending victims of human trafficking, see the Law Society’s blog:


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