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Appropriate Adult scheme is letting down vulnerable people in custody and requires urgent reform

Being locked up at a police station would be a shocking and frightening experience for most of us, and even more so for those who have a particular vulnerability which makes it difficult for them to understand what is happening to them. Since 1984, children and vulnerable adults have been entitled to extra help at the police station, through an ‘appropriate adult’ scheme where an adult attends and assists them through the entire custody process. A recent report by the National Appropriate Adult Network however, suggests that many do not get the support they need, risking potential miscarriages of justice and increasing the risk of self-harm.

Appropriate adults, or “AAs” are usually either a friend or family member, a volunteer from one of a number of specialist organisations, or a social worker. The police may call on a member of the public to assist if necessary, though this is rare. If a custody sergeant (a senior police officer responsible for the welfare of any person detained at a police station) suspects that a person may be vulnerable, they are required to obtain an appropriate adult for that person.

The National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) was commissioned by the Home Secretary to report on the current provision for those over 18 and to make recommendations on how to improve it.

There has been a legal obligation to provide AAs since the enactment of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Despite the general agreement from all stakeholders that AAs are important and necessary, there is no central or statutory provision (unlike, for instance, for solicitors who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year). The report suggests that the very fact that it can be hard to get hold of an appropriate adult affects the rate at which they are requested by the police.

When a person is detained at a police station, the police generally have 24 hours to deal with them before they must be released (or further permission sought for an extension of time). Delays in waiting for an AA mean that a vulnerable person may be detained for longer than otherwise necessary, in a stressful environment which they may not be able to understand. The alternative is for a custody sergeant either to bail them to return at another time (possibly only putting the problem off for another day) or to continue without an AA.

The National Appropriate Adult Network estimate that between 11% and 22% of those detained at police stations require an AA. Many police forces do not have records of the numbers of times AAs are called out for detainees, but the NAAN have calculated that an AA was called for between 0.5% and 9.2% of ‘custody episodes’. Although the data is far from straightforward, it seems highly likely that many vulnerable people are let down by the current system.

Our own civil liberties team regularly encounters issues with the current provision for vulnerable adults. We encounter many clients who are experiencing a mental health crisis and need urgent assessment and treatment, rather than arrest and detention in police station custody.

We also regularly see custody sergeants failing to consider the need for an AA even where it is obvious that one is needed or delaying calling one for a prolonged period. In some cases officers are actively obstructive and refuse to accept the concerns of relatives who call in to raise the detainee’s vulnerabilities.

Frequently it seems that there is a desire to fast track people through the custody process, searching them prior to the arrival of an AA and not repeating their rights in the presence of the AA; encouraging people to go ahead without an AA (purportedly to speed up the process); and charging people without the support of an AA, including pressuring illiterate detainees into signing documents without the help of an AA.

The culture of perceived scarcity of AAs, as well as the overall lack of training and low rate of AAs being used, is borne out by the NAAN report. It points to a need for urgent reform, placing these rights on a detailed statutory footing with sanctions if they are not complied with.

The consequences can be serious. If a detained person does not understand their rights, for example the right to have free legal advice or not to answer questions, then these fundamental rights are meaningless. A person with learning difficulties may be more susceptible to pressure put on them in interview to answer questions or even make a false confession. The case law shows that sometimes the court will not exclude such evidence, especially where a person had a solicitor in the interview.

Even where an AA is provided, it is vital that they understand their role and are not intimidated by the sometimes high pressured environment of a police station. Their role is an active one, and they must intervene where they have any concerns about the treatment of the detained person, or of their understanding of what is going on. A passive appropriate adult may well be worse than none at all, giving the impression that the person’s rights have been protected without there being any genuine protection.

According to the report, one custody sergeant responded that if an AA was not available he would “re-assess the detainee”. This worryingly suggests that officers might in some circumstances change their view of a person’s vulnerability because of the lack of available support, rather than on the basis of how the person actually presents to them at the police station.

Clearly a more consistent approach is needed, to ensure that an AA is available for every vulnerable person at the police station. The provision of such a vital role must therefore be given a statutory basis with funding for the proper training of both the custody sergeants who are making the assessment and AAs themselves.

Some suggest that there should be an appropriate adult service based at the police station. This would endanger the independence of the AA from the police; a level of trust is required between the detained person and the AA which would not be well served by the AA and the interviewing officer sharing a workplace and canteen.

It is clearly time for there to be proper funding and organisation to ensure all those who need extra help have speedy access to a properly trained appropriate adult. At a time of budget cuts to the police, social services and youth services however, we have to hope it will not be another 30 year wait.