cell doorUp to 250,000 people who have learning disabilities, mental illness or autistic spectrum disorders are not receiving the support of an ‘appropriate adult’ while being detained or questioned by police, despite it being a legal requirement, a report has found.

The report, There to Help, commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May, analysed police data and found that appropriate adults are currently only used in about 45,000 of the 1.4 million detentions and voluntary interviews of adults each year. This is despite an estimated 280,000 detentions involving a person who is ‘mentally vulnerable’ under rules regulating police powers.

Parliament introduced appropriate adults in the 1980s following miscarriages of justice against vulnerable people. The appropriate adult role includes ensuring effective communication, welfare, understanding, fair treatment and helping people exercise their rights – such as having a legal advisor present.

Local authorities have a legal duty to provide organised appropriate adult schemes for children, many of which use trained volunteers. But there is no such duty for mentally vulnerable adults and there are no organised schemes in many areas.

The report found police were least likely to identify vulnerability in areas with no organised appropriate adult scheme. Custody officers reported spending hours trying to find a suitable appropriate adult, admitting to sometimes asking random members of the public or proceeding without one.

Chris Bath FRSA, chief executive of the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), the charity which led the study said: “People with learning disabilities, mental ill health, traumatic brain injuries or autistic spectrum disorders are some of the most vulnerable citizens, and state detention is perhaps the most vulnerable situation. We have a moral and a legal duty to ensure appropriate adults are available wherever people live.”

May welcomed the report, saying that the status quo is “not acceptable” for vulnerable adults. “I am concerned that vulnerable adults are not always receiving the support of an appropriate adult. We are currently examining the recommendations and implementation options to ensure that vulnerable people are provided with the support they are entitled to.

“I am grateful to NAAN for their continued dedication to ensure fairness and humane treatment of both vulnerable adults and children when they are in trouble and in police custody.”

Call for more appropriate adult training

In response to the report, leading figures in the sector have called for more people to be trained as appropriate adults. 

Lord Bradley, author of The Bradley Report, said: “The police work in a difficult environment with incredible time pressures. Trained appropriate adults must be quickly available wherever they are needed. Along with liaison and diversion, and street triage, they are critical part of a coherent approach to vulnerabilities which both saves money and delivers better outcomes.”

Martyn Underhill, Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset and chair of the Independent Custody Visitors Association said: “We are clearly not getting it right for the more vulnerable members of our communities who need that extra protection and support. When a vulnerable person comes into contact with the police, their needs deserve to be properly identified, with a needs assessment made, and for them to then be dealt with quickly and fairly. For this to happen, every area needs an organised, trained appropriate adult scheme which is totally independent of the police.”

Avtar Bhatoa, chair of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, said: "To ensure fair justice for all, mentally vulnerable people need the help of an appropriate adult during what can be a daunting and confusing time. With the right support, mentally vulnerable people are less likely to suffer an injustice or to waive their right to free legal advice through fear and misunderstanding, which can compound their disadvantage in the justice system. It is vital that the recommendations in this important report are implemented."

James Bullion from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said: “Helping to support and safeguard our most vulnerable citizens, whether they are victims or suspects, is central to the role of adult social care services. Many local authorities have a long history of providing social workers or funding dedicated AA schemes. ADASS supports the report’s recommendations and is keen to work with central Government and local partners to ensure sustainable services are available for all.”