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

Custody suite with cell doors open

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

There is a legal requirement for the police to secure an ‘appropriate adult’ (AA) to attend when they suspect that a person they have detained or wish to interview is either under 18 or may be a vulnerable person. This includes people with mental health conditions, learning disabilities and autism.  

While Local Authorities have a clear statutory responsibility to provide this service for young people, no organisation has ever been given explicit legal responsibility for providing this service for vulnerable adults.

Research published by the charity National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) in 2019 found nearly 20% of local authority areas had no organised AA scheme and police officers can be forced to spend hours searching for someone to fill the role.

In the absence of any other organisation stepping up to deliver this service in Merseyside, the region’s Police Commissioner Emily Spurrell has stepped in to re-commission The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) to deliver this service until March 2027.

But the Commissioner, who is also the national lead for custody on behalf of all PCCs, is now calling upon the Government to resolve this situation by changing the law to make this service a statutory responsibility for vulnerable adults.

Merseyside’s Police Commissioner Emily Spurrell said: “It is a mark of a decent society that we give the most vulnerable people proper protection in detention, making sure they have the right help and support.

“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 service to be funded through ‘local collaborative arrangements’. Given the devastating budget cuts all public services have faced in recent years that is simply not realistic.

“Public sector organisations are already struggling to deliver the services 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, but it’s also hindering the criminal justice process and having a negative impact upon victims of crime.

“It is completely unacceptable for a person with learning disabilities, a mental illness or autism to be detained and questioned without appropriate support.

“The Government cannot wash its hands of this situation any longer. 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.

“Between May 2016 and June 2021, the service delivered by TAAS has safeguarded the welfare and rights of more than 5,100 vulnerable adults in Merseyside – individuals who otherwise would not have received the support they need and deserve and to which they have a legal right.

“TAAS are an excellent organisation and I’m pleased they will be delivering this service in Merseyside for the next five years.”

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.

Chris Bath, chief executive of NAAN (National Appropriate Adult Network) said, “It doesn’t make sense to require police to secure appropriate adults for children and vulnerable adults, but only require Local Authorities to provide for children.

“We are asking police to do better at identifying people who need an appropriate adult. It is only fair for police to expect the service exists.

“Policing cannot and should not do everything. Independence from the police is fundamental to the appropriate adult role. It is the role of adult social care to support vulnerable people. They have the necessary independence, skills and expertise. They simply need the resources and the mandate”.

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.

Regional Manager for TAAS Karen Harding said: “The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) are delighted to have been given the opportunity to continue to support vulnerable adults in police custody across Merseyside.

“TAAS will continue to uphold the rights of detainees, whilst facilitating communication with custody staff and external agencies, and ensuring understanding and welfare.

“TAAS Appropriate Adult staff are committed and reliable, showing great resilience throughout the pandemic, and are looking forward to continuing to work independently alongside Merseyside Police, ensuring that vulnerable adults are processed efficiently and fairly through the system.”