Police forces in England and Wales are failing to comply with statutory safeguards as thousands of vulnerable adults in police interviews are not accompanied by an ‘appropriate adult’, a trained volunteer to help with communication, welfare and legal rights. A new report by the National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) found that almost four out of 10 adult suspects in police custody (39%) have a mental disorder; but in 2018/19 the need for an appropriate adult to be present was recorded in only 6.2% of custody interviews and in voluntary interviews the rate was even lower at 3.5%.
A report by NAAN, a charity that supports vulnerable adults and children in police custody, drew on data from police forces across England and Wales and found that most detention and interviews of adult suspects with mental illnesses, learning difficulties, autism and other mental disabilities did not have an appropriate adult present. The study also highlighted that there was very wide variation of AAs provided across police forces, with one police force providing AAs in as few as 0.1% of interviews. This means that there is an estimated need for AAs going unrecorded in around 150,000 to 350,000 cases.
In July 2018, changes were made to the PACE Code of Practice – the guidance issued to police forces on how to exercises their legal powers – in order to improve the proportion of adults recorded as needing an AA. Unfortunately, NAAN reports that this has not had the desired impact. The Home Office in 2018 introduced additional changes but Chris Bath, CEO of NAAN, said ‘the sad fact is that the changes have made no significant difference at all’. ‘Our report reinforces calls for the Home Office to create a statutory duty on local authorities, or another independent body, to provide help for vulnerable adults in police stations.’
The report posits a number of different reasons why the recorded rate of need for an AA varies across forces, including differing interpretations of the police’s legal duties, local funding levels and ease of access to AA services.
The need to provide AAs to vulnerable adult suspects not only protects their legal rights, but ensures that interviews are properly and lawfully conducted, investigations are informed by reliable evidence and miscarriages of justice are avoided. It can be an expensive error for police forces if criminal cases are forced to collapse for failing to comply with these safeguards. The lack of AAs can also have a direct and significant impact on individual suspects as it risks suicide and self-harm, the report says.
Martyn Underhill, the Dorset police and crime commissioner, called the report a ‘sobering and disappointingly familiar read’. He told the Guardian ‘this is neither in the interests of police, suspects, nor victims and can undermine public confidence in policing and the wider justice system’.
Recognising the need to improve the treatment of vulnerable adults, the report makes a series of recommendations. These include a national policing strategy to reduce the inflow of vulnerable people at risk, refreshing police training, and enhancing links between police and health sector workers.