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Lack of support for vulnerable adults in police custody

3 June 2019

Person in handcuffs

Vulnerable adults in police custody face a postcode lottery on whether they are given the right support, an academic says.

Dr Roxanna Dehaghani, of Cardiff University, spent six months observing procedures in police custody, which forms the basis of her book, Vulnerability in police custody: police decision-making and the appropriate adult safeguard.

Appropriate adults provide support, advice and assistance to mentally vulnerable suspects throughout police detentions and during interviews. They aim to ensure people understand what is happening and that their legal rights and welfare are safeguarded.

In July last year, Dr Dehaghani’s research, which showed a lack of implementation of the appropriate adult (AA) safeguard among custody sergeants, led to amendments being made to Home Office guidance.

New figures released by the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) show recorded need for an appropriate adult increased among police forces, from 3% of detentions in 2015 to 6% over a year ending in March 2018. This rate of increase varied significantly between forces, with some actually recording a decrease. Studies suggest that up to 39% of adults detained or questioned may need an appropriate adult present.

The report, There to Help 2, also showed 16% of the population in England and Wales did not have access to an organised appropriate adult scheme.

Dr Dehaghani, based in the School of Law and Politics, said: “These latest figures demonstrate that changes to guidance were needed to ensure all vulnerable adults are given the correct support. But perhaps the more significant issue is that there still exists no statutory duty on any agency to provide these vital services. Provision across England and Wales remains patchy.”

Vulnerable people may have difficulty with understanding or communicating, unintentionally provide unreliable information or accept suggestions without meaning to. This may be down to one of a range of issues such as mental health, learning difficulties or autism.

Chris Bath of the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), said: “It is in nobody’s interest for innocent people to have their lives ruined, or indeed guilty people to avoid convictions, due to the failure to ensure mentally vulnerable people are given appropriate adult support. Police must comply with their duty to secure an appropriate adult. It is only fair, both to them and to vulnerable people, that we ensure independent AA services exist in all areas”.

Dr Dehaghani was part of the Home Office’s Working Group on Vulnerable Adults, which was tasked with remedying the poor implementation of the appropriate adult safeguard.  In July last year, Code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was changed, strengthening the requirement on custody officers to identify vulnerabilities and changing the definition of vulnerability.
She also compiled an evidence base for NAAN’s updated National Standards – which offer guidance and recommendations for appropriate adults.

Dr Dehaghani added: “Research shows that police forces with better access to organised appropriate adult schemes have significantly higher vulnerability identification rates than those forces with no such access. The lack of structured provision, which has been driven by pressures on local government finances and a lack of clarity over who is responsible for it, has still not been properly addressed.”