PCC calls for changes in the law to provide improved protection for vulnerable adults in custody

Merseyside / March 21

Merseyside’s Police Commissioner has called for an urgent change to the law to guarantee the provision of support for vulnerable adults in custody after she was once again forced to step in to save the service on Merseyside.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice the police are required to contact an ‘appropriate adult’ (AA) as soon as practicable, when they suspect that a person they have detained or wish to interview is either under 18 or may have a mental vulnerability. This includes people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and autism.  

While Local Authorities have a statutory responsibility to ensure this service for people aged under 18s, no authority, agency or organisation has ever been given statutory responsibility for ensuring provision service for vulnerable adults. Research carried out by the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) has found that many areas of the country have no organised AA scheme and police officers can be forced to spend hours searching for someone to fill the role.

In May 2016, Merseyside’s Police Commissioner, Jane Kennedy, took the decision to step in, as a short term measure, to fund an AA service in Merseyside for a six-month pilot period. That contract, delivered by The Appropriate Adult Service (or TAAS), has subsequently had to be extended by six months and then a further year after a competitive tendering process, after the PCC was unable to secure guaranteed funding for this service.

Despite on-going efforts to win support from partners in the region’s local authorities and health agencies during that time, the PCC has been unable to find a long-term solution for this service and has now forced to once again fund it for a further year from reserves.

Now the Commissioner is calling upon the Government to resolve this situation by changing the law to make this service a statutory responsibility, in the same way that appropriate adults for young people are provided.

Jane said: “It is a mark of our civilisation that we give our most vulnerable people proper protection in detention, making sure they have the right help and support that they, and the authorities need. People who have learning disabilities, are experiencing mental health problems or are particularly vulnerable should not be detained longer than is absolutely necessary.

“Despite this being a national requirement, the Government currently expects an AA services to be funded through local collaborative arrangements, but in the face of austerity and with no single agency holding legal responsibility, that is simply not realistic. Public sector organisations are already struggling to deliver the services that they do have a statutory responsibility to deliver, let alone stepping up to deliver the ones they are not legally required to provide.

“The sad truth is that this is leaving vulnerable adults detained in custody for far longer than they should be, and in some cases individuals are being bailed without a proper case conclusion. This not only has a detrimental impact upon them, it is also hindering the criminal justice process and having a negative impact upon victims of crime.

“Between May 2016 and January 2018, the service I commissioned from TAAS has safeguarded the welfare and rights of nearly 1,200 vulnerable adults – individuals who otherwise would not have received the support they need and deserve and to which they have a legal right.

“This is an unacceptable situation. I stepped in to fund this service using reserves as a short-term solution nearly two years ago. I am now in a position where I am being forced to choose between reducing the support I can provide for victims of crime or other important community safety work to fund this service, or allow vulnerable adults to be let down.

“In other policing regions, I know this service is not being delivered. People with learning disabilities, mental illnesses and autism are being detained and questioned without appropriate support, even though it is against the law.

“I have repeatedly raised my concerns with ministers, most recently in a letter to Policing Minister Nick Hurd last September. Yet my calls for change appear to be falling on deaf ears.

“The Government cannot wash its hands of this situation any longer. This existing ambiguity is leaving already very vulnerable people further disadvantaged in our justice system. Action needs to be taken urgently. This situation will only ever change if an appropriate agency or organisation is given legal responsibility for providing an AA service and the funding to deliver it. ”

A report released in 2015 by the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN), entitled ‘There to Help’ and based on police data, showed up to 235,000 police detentions and interviews of mentally vulnerable adults were being conducted without an AA each year. Researchers were unable to identify an organised AA schemes for adults in approximately 50% of local authority areas of England and Wales.

NAAN’s Chief Executive Chris Bath said: “AAs for vulnerable adults have been a supposedly mandatory safeguard in the justice system for over 30 years, yet nobody is responsible for ensuring their provision. Both police and suspects deserve to know that an effective AA will be available when needed. We would like to see the same clarity, consistency and accountability for provision for vulnerable adults as there is for children”.

AAs were introduced in the 1980s in the wake of miscarriages of justice based on false confessions by police suspects. They provide support, advice and assistance during interviews and other procedures, such as DNA testing and strip searches. They can ensure that people have legal representation where it is in their best interests. This helps to ensure that people are treated fairly, understand what is happening, can use their rights and can communicate effectively. The absence of an AA can lead to evidence being ruled inadmissible in court.

Where an AA is required, the person may choose for the role to be filled by a relative or guardian. However, there are often legal and logistical reasons why this is not possible. In such situations, an AA scheme provides a lifeline to both police and suspect. AA schemes provide specially trained individuals who are independent of police.

Find out more about the Appropriate Adult service here.