Vulnerable adults in police custody missing out on vital support, research shows

Thousands of police detentions and voluntary interviews of vulnerable people may have been carried out without an ‘appropriate adult’ present, a report has found.

Oct 14, 2020
By Tony Thompson

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Codes of Practice states that vulnerable people, including those who have a mental illness, learning disability, brain injury or autism spectrum condition should have an appropriate adult present when they are brought into custody.

A lack of such support could mean police detentions and voluntary interviews of mentally vulnerable suspects risk producing unreliable evidence.

Clinical interviews have previously shown that 39 per cent of adults in police custody have a mental disorder, including mental health and learning disabilities.

The new report has analysed data from police forces in England and Wales during 2018/19 and suggests appropriate adults may have therefore been required more than 384,000 times during this period.

Co-authors Dr Roxanna Dehaghani of Cardiff University and Chris Bath, chief executive of the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), found in 2018/19, the need for an appropriate adult was recorded in only 6.2 per cent of more than 831,000 detentions of adults and in only 3.5 per cent of more than 150,000 voluntary interviews of adults.

The need for an appropriate adult was recorded 57,000 times, meaning vulnerable adults who met the criteria for mandatory support may have been missed up to 327,000 times.

Dr Dehaghani, who previously spent six months making observations in police custody suites, said: “Appropriate adults facilitate effective participation and ensure fairness within the first – and often only – stage of criminal proceedings.”

“Despite the importance of this safeguard, uptake remains worryingly low. Much more progress must be made to ensure that vulnerable people are given the support to which they are legally entitled.”

Mr Bath said: “Frontline police officers have an incredibly difficult job. As a minimum, they deserve reliable tools to implement the complex rules about vulnerable suspects – and for there to be independent appropriate adult schemes available when needed. Beyond that, the sheer scale of vulnerability among suspects raises questions about whether we are asking police to pick up the pieces from failures elsewhere.”

Identification of vulnerable suspects has been slowly improving, from under three per cent in 2012/13, to around six per cent in 2017/18. In August 2018, the Home Office radically redefined vulnerability and introduced new requirements on police. Following this, rates in custody did not significantly increase and worsened in voluntary interviews.

Using data shared by NHS England Liaison and Diversion (L&D), which identifies people who have mental health, learning disability, or other vulnerabilities in police custody, the researchers found that on average, forces with access to L&D services recorded higher rates of appropriate adult need but four out of five L&D clients had no appropriate adult and of these, 68 per cent had at least one mental health issue at the time.

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