‘Urgent review’ of appropriate adults needed

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice

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  • Theresa May

Solicitors have urged the government to review, as a matter of urgency, the provision of appropriate adults (AA) for mentally vulnerable detainees in police stations after a report published today highlighted ‘significant shortcomings’.

The Home Office-commissioned report, There to help, found ‘inadequate’ police practices with respect to identifying suspects’ vulnerabilities and the need for AAs, and highlighted limited availability and a variable quality of AAs.

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Police are required to secure an AA whenever they detain or question ‘mentally disordered’ or ‘otherwise mentally vulnerable’ adults, including people with mental illness, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury, dementia and autism.

The AA has a defined role, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) codes of practice, to ‘provide support, advice and assistance necessary to ensure fair treatment, effective participation and guard against false confessions. AAs help the police to fulfil their responsibilities under PACE and are a critical safeguard against the abuse of police powers’.

‘Many vulnerable adults do not receive the support of an AA or receive it only for part of the custody process,’ the report states. ‘This undermines their welfare, inhibits the exercise of their legal rights, risks miscarriages of justice and lengthens custody times potentially increasing the risk of self-harm.’

The National Appropriate Adult Network, a national membership body and charity supporting and representing organisations that provide appropriate adult services, was commissioned to examine current AA arrangement for vulnerable adults, identify shortcomings in provision and develop recommendations to ensure provision.

Its 10 recommendations include amending PACE to establish an ‘explicit’ statutory duty on police officers to secure an AA for all mentally vulnerable adults, and for ‘greater consistency’ in courts’ approach to the admissibility of evidence obtained in the absence of an AA.

Based on a ‘conservative’ estimate, the report states full provision of trained AAs throughout the custody process would cost £19.5m a year, equating to £113,000 per local authority. Current national spending is estimated to be around £3m a year.

The network recommended short-term programme funding of £3m-£5m a year to support the inclusion of AA provision within ‘mainstream’ budgets.

Avtar Bhatoa, chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said it was ‘vital’ the report’s recommendations were implemented.

‘With the right support, mentally vulnerable people are less likely to suffer an injustice or to waive their right to free legal advice through fear and misunderstanding, which can compound their disadvantage in the justice system,’ Bhatoa said.

Home Office

Jonathan Black, a partner at London criminal defence firm BSB Solicitors, recalled recently encountering a case involving a teenage girl who was kept in a central London cell overnight due to an appropriate adult not being available.

Black said it was ‘inappropriate for her to be detained in a busy custody suite full of drunks on a Saturday night but the police were hamstrung as they could not bail her pending interview due to the nature of the allegation’.

Black said an ‘urgent review’ of AA provision was needed ‘as part of a wider consideration of the issues that we are raising with the Ministry of Justice at the moment.

‘Under duty contracting, the shortage of representation in some areas will cause even greater potential delays for these young people as police struggle to organise the attendance of all relevant professionals’.

However, the report prompted some solicitors to question the need for AAs. Lee Davies, director of Swansea practice Goldstones Solicitors, said he could think of ‘very few cases’ where the presence of an AA ‘has made a difference to the case’.

‘However, for as long as they are still required by virtue of PACE, it is essential that they are able to attend as soon as possible as it is completely unacceptable that anyone is detained longer than they need to be because an AA is unavailable,’ Davies said.

Home secretary Theresa May (pictured) said she commissioned the report ‘to determine where the problems lie’ as a result of a lack of AAs.

The ‘status quo’, she said, ‘is not acceptable’ and her department was ‘currently examining’ the recommendations.

Readers' comments (6)

  • If they think there is a problem now then wait until Mid January 2016. The police have no interest in getting appropriate adults involved, reps will be trying to minimise the time they are at the Police Station and waiting hours for an Appropriate Adult to be found and the turn up at the Police Station will be the least of their concerns.

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  • Appropriate adults are a nightmare, I have to wait two hours a few nights ago for one to attend when the first one requested failed to attend as it was near the end of her shift and then we had to wait for the new shift to start and then for them to find one. It's getting to the stage where we may have to refuse to set off until the appropriate adult has arrived. Case yesterday involved vulnerable adult, mental health issues. No friends or family could act as appropriate adult as they where involved in allegation also and the only way to get one was to have client arrested, seen by medical examiner and then one appointed. This would have caused hours of delay and stress for client which was not in her best interest and therefore decided to interview her with out one.

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  • I think appropriate adult were of great importance prior to PACE '84. The then current police attitude, highlighted in the BBC's 'Life on Mars' and from back then, hearing the story from a young offender verbalised into giving a false confession, while under duress.

    Anon@10:57. Perhaps you should consider that AAs are volunteers and unpaid for their efforts. and are called up at all hours of the day.

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  • Anon@02:55. Perhaps you should consider the role of the appropriate adult is to facilitate communication between the suspect and the police and to ensure the welfare needs of the suspect are being met. Not quite sure why what they get paid or what hours they work is necessary for me to consider, my concerns are for my client not the appropriate adult.

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  • I am not in anyway surprised by this revelation, Social Workers and the like in my humble submission could not organise the preburbial "Boozw-up in a Brewery". These so-called professionals are barnacles on the back of society.

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  • Well, Anon 4.56 , your job (I assume you are a solicitor) is to protect your client's legal rights by ensuring the police adhere to the correct and fair procedures. Not sure why you get paid for doing that or why we need to worry what time you're called out? Siurely you too are doing it out of charitable impluses?

    John Rudd: the article doesn't say that appropriate adults are social workers so not sure why you see fit to drag your prejudices in here. However, front line social workers are increasingly overworked (since cuts reduce their numbers) they are treated by people like you as damned if they do and damned as they don't., so the more that quit for a better life the harder it is for the rest. They don't sit about drinking cups of tea and drawing a fat salary for doing so whatever you may think..

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