Public concern over the Maxwell Confait murder case in 1972 led Parliament, via a Royal Commission, to pass the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) and its Codes of Practice.
PACE set out the rules and safeguards for policing in England and Wales including role of the appropriate adult (AA).
The principal intention of the AA safeguard was to reduce the risk of miscarriages of justice as a result of evidence being obtained from vulnerable suspects which, by virtue of their vulnerability, led to unsafe and unjust convictions.
Where the suspect is a child or vulnerable person, PACE requires the presence of an AA for many procedures.
The role of the appropriate adult is to safeguard the interests, rights, entitlements and welfare of children and vulnerable people who are suspected of a criminal offence, by ensuring that they are treated in a fair and just manner and are able to participate effectively.
Here is how the law describes the role:
- "To safeguard the rights, entitlements and welfare of juveniles and vulnerable persons to whom the provisions of this and any other Code of Practice apply ”. Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Code C 1.7A
- “To act as appropriate adults to safeguard the interests of children and young persons detained or questioned by police officers”. Crime and Disorder Act 1998 s.38(4)
Outcomes for children and vulnerable people
The main outcomes for children and vulnerable people are that they are:
- treated fairly with respect for their rights and entitlements
- able to participate effectively in procedures related to the investigation and/or their detention.
In addition, research with people who have been supported by appropriate adults has indicated benefits to mental health, emotional wellbeing, personal dignity and freedom from abuse. For example, research by Bristol University found that service users felt supported emotionally, and more protected against mockery, intimidation, fear, dehumanising, bullying and isolation. People appreciated the support for reasons other than those defined in PACE (identifying other personal factors such as gender or ethnicity as important in generating vulnerability).
Outcomes for the justice system
From a wider justice system perspective, the AA safeguard means greater integrity, including a better quality of evidence. This reduces both the risk of evidence being excluded at trial and the risk of miscarriages of justice. It is not in the interests of justice for guilty people not to be held account, or for innocent people to be punished.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, Code C, paragraph 1.7A states that, "the appropriate adult is expected, amongst other things, to:
- support, advise and assist them when, in accordance with this Code or any other Code of Practice, they are given or asked to provide information or participate in any procedure;
- observe whether the police are acting properly and fairly to respect their rights and entitlements, and inform an officer of the rank of inspector or above if they consider that they are not;
- assist them to communicate with the police whilst respecting their right to say nothing unless they want to as set out in the terms of the caution;
- help them to understand their rights and ensure that those rights are protected and respected."
Many police processes cannot take place without an appropriate adult. Appropriate adults are expected to be an active participant. In order to be effective, they need to be assertive and speak up. Based on ther description in law above, here is a bit more information about what appropriate adults do.
1. Advise, support and assist the vulnerable suspect
In relation to information and procedures, AAs have a role in helping children and vulnerable people to:
- understand their rights;
- use their rights;
- participate effectively.
- checking whether a person understands the meaning and significance of information provided to them;
- checking whether a person understands the meaning and significance of questions asked of them, and their own replies, including when they are asked to give their consent to procedures;
- helping a person to understand the meaning and significance of information and questions;
- providing general, non-legal, advice about custody procedures and their rights, including on the scope and limit of the AA role vs accessing legal advice.
Importantly, AAs may not give legal advice. This is the role of the solicitor or police station legal representative. However, the AA can require a solicitor to attend, even if a person has waived their right to legal representation.
2. Observe and inform if rights are breached
AAs have a role in:
- ensuring police are treating a person in compliance with their rights and entitlements;
- observing whether a person’s condition/state has deteriorated or otherwise changed;
- escalting issues that have not been resolved by investigating officers, detention officers or custody sergeant to higher ranked officers;
- ensuring any issues are recorded on the interview and/or custody record so that this information is available to courts.
3. Assist the vulnerable suspect with communication
AAs have a role in helping people to understand, and be understood, when they are detained or questioned. This includes helping them to maintain their right to silence if that's what they want to do.
AAs may not:
- assist the interviewer in getting information or confessions that the person does not wish to give. The AA role was developed as a safeguard in response to concerns about false confessions. If the AA acts as an 'agent of the interrogation', they are not be independent of the police and courts are likely to question the reliability of evidence gained.
- be able to meet very significant speech, language and communication needs. In some cases it may be neccessary to appoint a qualified professional (e.g. an intermediary) to conduct a formal assessment and potentially provide additional support with communication.
4. Protect the rights of the vulnerable suspect
AAs have a role in:
- checking that people understand their rights, entitlements and the caution, including by asking them questions to test understanding;
- asking police officers to provide further explanation where required;
- providing information or explanations about rights, entitlements and the caution;
- talking to people who waive their right to free legal advice about any misconceptions they may have;
- requiring a solicitor to attend where they believe it to be in the best interests of a vulnerable suspect;
- intervening in interviews to protect rights;
- making representations in relation to rights, such as during reviews of detention;
- engaging with police, lawyers and medical professionals in the interests of protecting a person's rights.
Appropriate adults support suspects who are detained and/or interviewed by police under PACE. The police custody sergeant is responsible for identifying people who require an AA. These fall into two categories, described below. Once the need has been identified, many police processes can not take place without an appropriate adult.
Anyone who appears to be under 18.
We use the term 'children'. PACE uses the term 'juvenile'. Other areas of law refer to 'children and young people'. However, since 2013 when 17 year olds were finally recognised as juveniles, these have all meant the same thing.
The minimum age of criminal responsbility in England and Wales is 10 years old (one of the lowest in the world).
The definition of vulnerability in PACE was significantly changed in July 2018. We have published a detailed guide to the changes.
Put simply, a person is now vulnerable if a police officer has any reason to suspect the person may:
- have difficulty understanding the full implications or communicating effectively about anything to do with their detention; or
- have difficulty understanding the significance or things they are told, questions, or their own answers; or
- may be prone to confusion, suggestibility, or compliance
- may be prone to providing unintentionally unreliable, misleading or self-incriminating information.
Relevant conditions include (but are not limited to):
- mental illness
- learning disabilities
- autistism spectrum conditions
- brain injury.
The requirement for an AA still applies if:
- there is no formal medical diagnosis or opinion from a heathcare professional
- it is a minor offence
- it is a terrorism offence
- there is a legal advisor present
- there is no organised AA scheme in the area
- the person says they do not want an appropriate adult
The requirement for an AA does not apply if there is "clear evidence to dispel" the police officer's reason to suspect.
Yes. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Code C states that:
- the police custody officer or custody staff shall determine whether the detainee is a juvenile and/or vulnerable and therefore requires an appropriate adult (paragraphs 3.5); and
- if so they must, as soon as practicable, ensure that the appropriate adult is informed of the grounds for their detention; their whereabouts; and the attendance of the appropriate adult at the police station to see the detainee is secure (paragraph 3.15).
The AA is a procedural safeguard placed on police when dealing with any child or adults if there is a reason to suspect they may be vulnerable (as defined by PACE). Unlike legal advice, this 'backstop' safeguard cannot be waived by either children or vulnerable adults.
No, it is not the role of the appropriate adult to support victims or witnesses. This does not mean there is no support for them. There are different services for these groups. For more information on support for victims and witnesses visit: -
- Contact your Police and Crime Commissioner (who commissions services locally)
- Victim's Information Service
- Victim Support
- Citizens Advice Witness Service
- Ministry of Justice Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (sections 2.201 – 2.208)
- Ministry of Justice Code of Practice for Victims of Crime - (paragraph 1.32)
- CPS Victims and Witnesses who have Mental Health Issues and/or Learning Disabilities
- College of Policing Working with victims and witnesses: Vulnerable or intimidated witness
The appropriate adult role is filled by many different types of people, including:
- parents or other family members
- friends or carers
- social workers
- charity workers
- specialist appropriate adults (either paid or voluntary).
Who the police ask to be the appropriate adult first is different for children and vulnerable adults. For children, police must start with a parent or guardian. For more information, see Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984 s.63B(10) and PACE Code C paragraph 1.7(a).
Some people are not allowed to be an appropriate adult:
- anyone under the age of 18
- anyone who has received an admission of guilt prior to attending
- anyone who might be a suspect, victim, witness or otherwise involved in the investigation
- solicitors and independent custody visitors at the police station in those capacities
- police officers, employees of the police anyone under contractual arrangements with, or under the control or direction of, the chief of police (unless they are the parent/guardian of the child; or a relative, guardian or other person responsible for the care or custody of the vulnerable adult; who is the suspect in the investigation)
- the principal of a child's educational establishment (unless waiting would cause unreasonable delay and the offence is not against that establishment)
- a person suspected of involvement in the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism
- a person may not sit as a Magistrate in the same local justice area in which they act as an appropriate adult.
Appropriate adults are organised at a local level. NAAN provides information about the role and can help you find a local scheme. Visit our section on becoming an appropriate adult to find out more.