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NEWS

The role of appropriate adults in securing fair trials

editor - August 7, 2017 - Vulnerable suspects

Getting arrested can be a terrifying experience, more so if you are a vulnerable person. What happens if a child is arrested? Or someone who is otherwise mentally vulnerable? That's where organisations such as the National Appropriate Adult Network come in, as explained in this post by Chris Bath, the organisation's Chief Executive. 

Appropriate adults (AAs) protect the welfare and rights of vulnerable suspects who are detained by police or interviewed voluntarily as a suspect. In England and Wales, the role was created by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) in 1984, influenced by a public inquiry into false confessions by two children and an adult with an intellectual disability.

Under the PACE Codes, an AA is required for all people under 18 and whenever a police officer has “any suspicion, or is told in good faith, that an adult may be mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable, in the absence of clear evidence to dispel that suspicion”. This broad definition includes mental illness, intellectual disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders and brain injuries.

NAAN LogoChildren and vulnerable adult suspects are at increased risk of: not understanding the significance of questions or their replies; being prone to unintentionally providing unreliable, misleading or self-incriminating information; being suggestible; and being confused or unclear.

Effective appropriate adults ensure that vulnerable people are treated fairly, with respect for their rights and entitlements. They enable effective participation, ensuring that a person both understands and can exercise their rights.

Though the relationship with AAs naturally involves tensions, the police ultimately benefit from the reduced risk that evidence will be deemed unreliable and inadmissible. The increased confidence provided to courts reduces the need for preliminary hearings to determine the admissibility of evidence and the likelihood of appeals.

There is therefore a positive impact on the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of both policing and the wider justice system. There is a reduced risk of miscarriages of justice, for example through false confessions. At the same time, the system is better able to hold the guilty to account, because reasonable adjustments have been made to account for vulnerabilities. This increases public confidence in the justice system.

The AA has a role in advising, supporting and assisting a vulnerable suspect during procedures from the initial reading of rights and entitlements, through interviews and ID procedures, to charge and bail. They must observe & check: the police’s compliance with rules and rights; the suspect’s state/condition and understanding of content, significance and implications; and that they understand and are understood. They are expected to be assertive and proactive in securing their objectives. The Codes provide AAs with specific powers, such as being able to secure a lawyer for a vulnerable suspect even they have waived their right to free legal advice.

While legislation prioritises parents in the role for children, they face significant challenges in providing an effective safeguard against the abuse (intentional or otherwise) of police powers. There is statutory duty on local government to ensure provision of AAs for people under 18. This has led to organised schemes of trained AAs, often volunteers, being developed in all areas. While many areas have similar (sometimes shared) schemes for adults, this is not a statutory requirement. As a result, police may comply with the letter of the Codes by using people who are both untrained and unknown to the suspect.

The National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) is a registered charity and membership organisation for both AA providers and individuals with an interest. We want to see every child and vulnerable adult detained or interviewed by police have their rights and welfare safeguarded effectively by an AA. Our work includes raising awareness, setting national standards, developing practitioner resources, supporting volunteering, informing parents and carers, providing training, conducting research and informing policy. Though our resources are small (two members of staff), with over 100 member organisations our potential reach is considerable.

As with all of our guest posts, the views represented are of the author and may not reflect the views of Fair Trials. If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71. For regular updates follow Fair Trials on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of the page. FB iconClick to share this story on Facebook

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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