Vulnerable adults

Video: BBC News report on launch of There to Help (2015)

The issues 

Our research

Our other activities

Latest updates

Press and media

The issues

In England and Wales, hundreds of thousands of people with mental illnesses, learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders and other mental vulnerabilities are not getting the support that they are legally entitled to when they are detained or otherwise questioned by police.

Some adults are at risk of an unfair processes

Adults with mental illnesses, learning difficulties and disabilities, autism spectrum conditions and other needs, face significant barriers to effective participation in police investigations.

People who are mentally vulnerable may be prone to unintentionally providing unreliable information. They may be highly suggestible or eager to please. They may become confused. They may have difficulty understanding the implications of police procedures and processes or the significance of what they are told, of questions they are asked or of their replies. They may not understand or be able to exercise their rights and entitlements.

Disabling barriers in custody and voluntary interviews can lead to miscarriages of justice and failed prosecutions.

Appropriate adults provide a safeguard

The appropriate adult (AA) is a mandatory procedural safeguard for suspects who may be mentally vulnerable.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice (PACE) police must contact an AA and have them present whenever the detain or question a child or mentally vulnerable adult.

Read more on the role of an appropriate adult.

Without an appropriate adult to support the person, police should not undertake many core tasks such as interviews, strip searches or ID procedures. Failure to secure an AA may result in evidence being ruled inadmissible in court, possibly causing a trial to collapse.

Poor identification of vulnerability

Clinical interviews have shown that 39% of adults in police custody have a mental disorder and 25.6% have psychosis, major depression, intellectual disabilities or lack capacity to consent to a research questionnaire (McKinnon and Grubin 2013, 2014).

In sharp contrast, police recorded the need for an AA in only:

  • 2.7% of detentions of adults in 2012/13
  • 3.1% of detentions of adults in 2013/14
  • 5.9% of detentions of adults in 2017/18.

No statutory duty to provide appropriate adults

It is a legal requirement that the AA is independent of the police. Usually the AA will be a parent or family member - but this is not always possible. Local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that a child has an AA. But there is no legal duty to provide AAs for mentally vulnerable adults.

This can result in vulnerable people not being recorded as needing an AA, extended detention times as police locate a person to act as AA, and potentially untrained members of the public to acting as AA.

Adult social services have historically led AA provision for adults, often through volunteers. However, as a non-statutory service this is under severe pressure. In recent years there has been increasing involvement from policing to fill in the gaps, raising questions about the independence of AAs.

In 2013/14, 52% of local authority areas had no organised AA scheme for vulnerable adults. Following NAAN's There to Help (2015) report, this rose to 82% by 2017/18. However, some areas still have no funded or organised provision. 

Our activities

Our research

2018 theretohelp narrow

There to Help research reports (2015-2020) use data obtained from police forces, liaison and diversion services and AA schemes. The reports:

  • Evidence the significant gaps in the identification of vulnerable suspects, application of AAs by police and the availability of organised AA provision
  • Track the impact of policy change on real world performance
  • Provide recommendations for policy and practice.

Our other activities

  • We have been supporting qualitative research by the Home Office's Crime and Policing Knowledge Hub, looking at the effectiveness of different models of AA provision and commissioning.
  • We have been using both broadcast and social media to raise awareness amongst vulnerable adults, their supporters and front line police officers.
  • We have been developing our networks and using speaking opportunities to engage with politicians, government officials, senior police officers, health and social care professionals and other strategic stakeholders.
  • Following the publication of There to Help (2015), the Home Secretary established a Home Office working group on the issue, reporting to the national PACE Strategy Board.
  • NAAN supported officials in developing the group's membership and terms of reference. NAAN was a key member of the working group, and continues to hold a seat on the PACE Strategy Board.

Latest updates 

January 2022

  • NAAN submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to all police territorial police forces in England and Wales, plus British Transport Police, Police Service of Northern Ireland. The requests asked for data on the recorded need for AAs in custody from April 2019 to December 2021.

May 2021

  • Chief Constables agree to adopt the new Custody Performance Management Framework, which includes capturing data on the need for appropriate adults. 

October 2020

  • Launch of Vulnerability Research Network (under British Society of Criminology), co-created by NAAN, including themes on 'Policing and vulnerability' and 'Vulnerability and the accused'. 

September 2020

View past updates

Press and media






29/09/20 - The Justice Gap: Appropriate adults: police forces failing to provide safeguards for vulnerable suspects

28/09/20 - The Guardian: Report raises alarm over police detention of vulnerable suspects in England and Wales 

31/05/19 - The Guardian: Report raises alarm over police detention of vulnerable suspects 

31/05/19 - The Justice Gap: More than 100,000 vulnerable adults a year detained by the police without ‘appropriate adult’ 

09/12/15 - The Guardian: The police can't prop up other struggling services forever

26/08/15 - The Guardian (Comment is Free): It’s time we gave our most vulnerable people proper protection in custody

26/08/15 - The Guardian (Society): Appropriate adult not available for many vulnerable people in police custody

26/08/15 - ITV News Mental health patients in police custody 'not given enough support'

26/08/15 - BBC News 'Appropriate adults not being used' for many vulnerable people in custody

26/08/15 - Huffington Post Mental Health Thousands Of Vulnerable People Are Not Getting The Support They Need In Police Custody

20/11/14 - Teenager with Down's syndrome who broke into his school to retrieve his favourite hat has police record wiped after 120,000 people sign petition Daily Mail

30/01/14 - Offenders with learning disabilities failed by criminal justice agencies Community Care

30/01/14 - Offenders with learning disabilities let down by criminal justice system Learning Disability Today

30/01/14 - Offenders with learning disabilities 'not supported' BBC

10/01/13 - Care not Custody is a promise worth keeping. The The Guardian

04/01/13 - Mental health nurses to be posted in police stations. The Guardian

13/10/11 - Vital role of ‘appropriate adult’ to help vulnerable people Community Care

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