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Vulnerable to suggestion -why we need more AAs & lawyers in police interviews

Penelope Gibbs
15 Jun 2019

“And my last post tonight about police station advice – I have no example in 25 years of where an appropriate adult added anything to the process. They are more often than not actually inappropriate. Ditch them and provide a solicitor instead”. Andrew Keogh @crimelinelaw tweeted this criticism of appropriate adults this week and a fierce twitter debate ensued. Some agreed but many solicitors came out in strong support of appropriate adults, or at least some AAs. But lawyers were adamant that AAs should complement but never replace lawyers: “If an appropriate adult is needed a solicitor should also be compulsory. I had a case with an autistic client recently and found the appropriate adult was extremely helpful throughout the process” @iansheds.

Appropriate adults are meant to be called by the police to support children (under 18s) or vulnerable adults who are being interviewed as suspects. Vulnerable is defined quite broadly, but includes anybody who, because of a mental health condition or disorder, may have difficulty understanding or communicating effectively about the full implications of their arrest and detention, or what their legal rights are. There are many problems with the AA system, one of which is that family members are asked first to be appropriate adults. Family members can be excellent at giving support to a stressed son/wife facing a criminal charge, but most have no idea about PACE (the police and criminal evidence act) nor how to ensure their nearest and dearest’s legal rights are protected. Why should they know?

If a family member is not available, the police usually call an appropriate adult service which provides a volunteer, paid agent or social worker to fulfil this role. Ideally any vulnerable person would have both an appropriate adult and a lawyer, but in reality sometimes they have one and not the other, and sometimes neither.

Something is not working in the assessment of vulnerability by police staff. This is not a criticism of the individuals concerned, but a reflection on the training they receive. The best academic research suggests that 12-39% of adult suspects are sufficiently vulnerable to need an appropriate adult, but the National Appropriate Network has found that police identify only 6% as needing support. Some areas have no organised AA provision. In those areas the police are half as likely to assess people as needing an AA – only 3% of suspects are assessed as needing one! This suggests that the assessment of need is unduly influenced by context.

If you extrapolate from the figures, that means there are thousands of vulnerable adults who get interviewed by the police without either an AA or a lawyer (half the suspects in a study of custody by Dr Vicky Kemp did not have legal representation). This is pretty disturbing, given that the police interview is likely to determine whether someone is detained by the police, whether they are charged and what they are charged with. #thelawisbroken