by Dr Alice Siberry
What is an Appropriate Adult?
An appropriate adult is a person who protects the rights, entitlements and welfare of children and vulnerable people who are suspected of a criminal offence. They ensure that an individual is treated in a fair and just manner and that they are able to participate effectively in the criminal justice process. People recognised as ‘vulnerable’ include:
- Children and young people
- People with mental health conditions
- People with learning disabilities
- Neurodivergent people (National Appropriate Adult Network, 2023).
There are two main challenges surrounding the use of appropriate adults:
Identifying the need for an appropriate adult:
- The police are required to secure an appropriate adult whenever there is any reason to suspect someone may be a ‘vulnerable’ person, as defined by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE, 1984).
- However, while an estimated 39% of police detentions include a person with a mental disorder (which could include a neurodivergent person), only 6.9% are recorded as requiring an appropriate adult (National Appropriate Adult Network, 2023).
- Furthermore, Slavny-Cross et al. (2022) found that only 47% of autistic defendants were offered an appropriate adult during a police investigation. Whilst 35% of autistic defendants were not given an appropriate adult during police investigation, a further 18% did not have an appropriate adult present because their diagnosis was not known to the police.
- This is supported by Crane et al. (2016) who found that only 39% of autistic people disclose their diagnosis to the police, adding an extra layer of difficulty in the identification process.
Lack of statutory provision:
- The police have a legal duty to secure an appropriate adult for a child or ‘vulnerable person’.
- While parents and other family members often act as appropriate adult, this is not always possible. Furthermore, an appropriate adult must be independent from the police investigation and cannot be provided by them.
- Local authorities have a legal duty to provide an appropriate adult for children when requested by police. However, there is no equivalent legal duty to provide one for vulnerable adults.
- That being said, the role that appropriate adults play in the support of vulnerable adults is invaluable. As suggested by a report by KeyRing (2022), information about an individual’s neurodivergence is usually gained by the appropriate adult and then shared with police practitioners, rather than the other way around.
Why might a neurodivergent adult say ‘no’ to an Appropriate Adult?
There has been much discussion surrounding whether neurodivergent people should be considered ‘vulnerable’. Some researchers suggest that the idea of ‘vulnerability’ is much more complex than simply applying to people with certain characteristics. This complexity is evidenced by the lack of consistency in the legislative definitions of who is a ‘vulnerable’ adult:
- Police and Criminal Evidence Act (2018): “’Vulnerable’ applies to any person who, because of a mental health condition or mental disorder (i) may have difficulty understanding or communicating effectively about the full implications for them of any procedures and processes connected with their arrest and detention (or voluntary attendance at a police station); does not appear to understand the significance of what they are told, of questions they are asked or of their replies; appears to be particularly prone to becoming confused and unclear about their position or providing unreliable, misleading or incriminating information”.
- College of Policing (2020): “A person is vulnerable if, as a result of their situation or circumstances, they are unable to take care of or protect themselves or others from harm or exploitation”.
- The Care Act (2014): The Care Act chose not to use the term ‘vulnerable’ in their legislation, instead referring to “adult at risk” or “adult with care and support needs”. The reason for this is because, in 2011, the Law commission recommended that the term ‘vulnerable’ could be regarded as ‘stigmatising, dated, negative and disempowering’. However, in some cases, a neurodivergent person may be even less likely to be identified as ‘at risk’ or ‘with care and / or support needs’.
- Mental Capacity Act (2005): The Mental Capacity Act defines a vulnerable person as someone lacking mental capacity, which presents another challenge in identifying neurodivergent people, many of whom are described as having fluctuating capacity.
As opposed to people with specific characteristics being ‘vulnerable’, and similar to the approach proposed by the College of Policing (2020), it has been suggested that all people can become vulnerable, a concept coined as situational vulnerability (Siberry, 2021).In one iteration of situational vulnerability, a person can become ‘vulnerable’ in any situation where they or their differences are not fully recognised or understood. In their research, Slavny-Cross et al. (2022) found that under half of autistic defendants (48%) were considered by police to be ‘vulnerable’ adults, which might support this particular notion of situational vulnerability.
Although it is not agreed whether neurodivergent adults should be considered ‘vulnerable’, what is agreed is that under times of stress or duress, the communicative skills of a neurodivergent person change. This refers back to the idea of fluctuating capacity. Given the example of a police interview, it is unlikely that a neurodivergent person would be able to communicate fully in a comfortable or comprehensive way, not to mention if they were being investigated for a criminal offence. In some cases, introducing a (perceived) stranger could add to any anxiety being experienced, impairing the individual further. This may then influence the decision making of custodians when considering the ‘appropriateness’ of such a provision.
Finally, it has been well reported that the questions asked during police conversation can be challenging for neurodivergent people to comprehend (e.g., in the work of Dr Katie Maras and Dr Chloe Holloway-George). This is especially the case for autistic individuals who might interpret language literally. Consider what the literal interpretation of the term ‘appropriate adult’ could lead to? The individual may believe that they are already an ‘appropriate’ adult, so why would they need another person to be ‘appropriate’ for them? If the question was, “Do you need someone to support you during this interview so that you understand what is being asked of you?”, it is highly likely we would see an increase in take up.
While the role of an appropriate adult is vital, it does, in a majority of cases, fall short of providing the relevant skillsets to facilitate communication. Though the language and interpretation of the term ‘registered intermediary’ could be just as challenging to navigate as ‘appropriate adult’, this scheme seems better placed to support autistic and neurodivergent adults. A registered intermediary is a self-employed communication specialist who helps vulnerable witnesses and complainants to give evidence to the police and to the court in criminal trials. Given their experience with specialist communication, despite being a (perceived) stranger, intermediaries have shown to be effective for autistic people (Cooper and Mattison, 2017). However, registered intermediaries are currently only available for witnesses and victims in England. In Northern Ireland, they are available to use for vulnerable victims, witnesses, and suspects with significant communication difficulties to communicate their answers more effectively during police interview and when giving evidence at trial.
It appears that the ability to identify the need for an appropriate adult, lack of disclosure and lack of ‘appropriate’ provision are contributing to neurodivergent people missing out on essential support when involved with the police. For many neurodivergent people, they might miss the offer of the provision due to their fluctuating capacity or situational vulnerability. There is a reliance on neurodivergent people knowing what they need when they need it. However, this is rarely the case. Further attention needs to be given to supporting both police officers and neurodivergent people in identifying the need for an appropriate adult.
Furthermore, the term ‘appropriate’ might be misleading and considerations should be given as to whether conversations about support should start by being asked whether they need such support, before providing more specific options (i.e., a family member, friend, or in many cases, the involvement of an appropriate adult).
National Appropriate Adult Network – https://www.appropriateadult.org.uk/information/what-is-an-appropriate-adult
Siberry, A. (2021) Diversity, Difference or Disorder? Exploring neurodiversity in police-community partnerships. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. Available from: https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/29219/
Slavny-Cross, R., Allison, C., Griffiths, S. Baron-Cohen, S. (2022) Autism and the criminal justice system: An analysis of 93 cases. Autism Research, 15 (5), 904-914.
Ministry of Justice Witness Intermediary Scheme – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/ministry-of-justice-witness-intermediary-scheme
Cooper, P. and Mattison, M. (2017) Intermediaries, vulnerable people, and the quality of evidence: An international comparison of three versions of the English intermediary model. The International Journal of Evidence and Proof, 21 (4), 351-370.
Crane, L., Maras, K. L., Hawken, T., Mulcahy, S. and Memon, A. (2016) Experiences of autism spectrum disorder and policing in England and Wales: surveying police and the autism community. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 2028-2041.
About Dr Alice Siberry –
Alice received her PhD in Criminology and Law from the University of Sheffield in July 2021. She was awarded the N8 Policing Research Studentship to complete her research, which investigated the effects of neurotypical police practices on the policing of neurodivergent people in local communities. Her research explored the potential risks of criminalisation and victimisation that may arise because of the perceptions held by neurotypical police officers about the differences portrayed by neurodivergent people.
Alice holds a First-Class Honours (BA Hons) degree in Counselling, Coaching and Mentoring and an MSc Psychology degree and works at Creased Puddle as a Specialist Neurodiversity Criminal Justice Consultant.
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