By Lydia Wilkins

When we come into contact with the police we all enjoy a set of rights that are set out in the Police And Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), such as during arrest. It would be amiss to not highlight that 2022 saw case after case of alleged policing misconduct. There was the case of Child Q and others, the continuing fallout from the response to the Sarah Everard memorial, and multiple allegations of sexism and misogyny running rampant. What is not always highlighted however is failings around PACE, such as when it comes to Autistic individuals. 

The Police And Criminal Evidence act defines the rights of those deemed to be vulnerable, under which Autistic individuals legally fall – but systematic faults point towards a traumatic impact on some.

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How PACE Came Into Being 

Somewhat of a landmark book, Untouchables is the 2004 book co-authored by former Guardian journalists Laurie Flynn and Michael Gillard. The chapter titled Noble Cause Corruption points to how, in 1984, the aftermath of the Brixton riots was one catalyst among others that led to the creation of the Police And Criminal Evidence act, partly as a response to allegations of police corruption. For instance, it meant for the first time that any interviews given under caution would be recorded. The Prosecution of Offences Act in 1985 established the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in October of the following year. Out of PACE the first police watchdog, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) was also born. 

What Happens And Why An Appropriate Adult Is Appointed 

The Police And Criminal Evidence act defines some of the rights we all theoretically enjoy while in police custody, such as when being detained. Any interviews that are given under caution are now recorded, for example. The guidance to establish whether an individual is fit to be interviewed or is ‘vulnerable’ – therefore requiring an Appropriate Adult – is contained in Code C of PACE. That relates to all suspect interviews, be it through voluntary attendance and not just those who have been arrested. 

An Autistic individual is eligible for an Appropriate Adult to be appointed to them when they are being interviewed at a police station. In an email dated October 2021, the College of Policing noted that even if a suspect is undiagnosed, those in charge of the interview or those staffing the custody suite have a responsibility to determine if an individual qualifies. Every suspect should be assessed, the email continued. 

The email further continued to confirm that Appropriate adults are not required to undergo any formal training – as a member of the suspect’s family can at times act in such a capacity. 

Appropriate Adults sit in on an interview. An explanation by the interviewer is given at the start of each recorded interview. If the adult is present, they should be informed that they are not expected to act just as an observer, they are to advise the person being interviewed, as well as observing if the interview is being conducted properly, and finally to facilitate communication with the person being interviewed. 

This matters because a court can refuse evidence if there was no such person present. 

Why Appropriate Adults Matter & What The Flaws Are 

Research published by The Justice Gap in 2019 suggested that 100,000 vulnerable adults were being detained annually without an appropriate adult. This was then followed up by another article in 2020, where it was noted that most detentions meant that no appropriate adult was present at all. 

The lack of training is surely a potential issue; an Autistic individual may struggle with theory of mind, which can at times be a potential issue when it comes to interpreting, understanding and possibly responding to a question. A lack of training as a family member may be in place in lieu of the appointed adult sets up an expectation of communication being incumbent on the Autistic individual; a family member isn’t always able to facilitate communication. While it’s one step better in comparison to when PACE was not in existence, this is imperfect. Breaches still happen – with seemingly little action taken to address this. Capacity of adults available also seems to be an issue. 

Steve Matthews, a former Scotland Yard Detective, said: “It’s so terrible because it’s in line with many aspects of policing and indeed society as a whole. There’s a lack of compassion because we live in a dog eat dog environment. When you couple this with an organization which has little to no sanction for such breaches it breeds an air of apathy. Basically if there are no consequences for breaking the rules the rules will get broken, we see this in our society, the police services and other organizations. The safeguards are in place but little heed is taken of them.”

It’s worth pointing out that some constabularies operate schemes such as The Pegasus System; if an individual on the Autistic spectrum comes into contact with the police, such as when calling for help, their details are theoretically saved with their local constabulary. You register for a card and are appointed a number; if this includes other actions, such as needing to give a statement, this would also include access to a trained officer. There is not a lot of data on this, similar to the Ask Angela Scheme – which The Metro found to often not work.

There isn’t a lot of inclusion for those who may be non-verbal or become non-verbal in situations of stress; showing a card also has an element of risk attached to it as well. The assumption may be made of reaching for some sort of weapon, for example. However, these schemes are usually free to sign up for – and a list of them are available here. 

At the time of writing, there are still some complaints that are being processed in connection with an appropriate adult not being appointed. We know of Child Q and the protests inspired by that; the description of the experience is harrowing, and it should be noted an appropriate adult was not appointed at that time. The Appropriate Adult system is letting down autistic individuals, and remains an imperfect solution to an ever present problem. 

The arguments for better representation to assist and do better by neurodivergent individuals could be made from here until the end of time – but it’s something wider than that. Vetting has been shown to be an issue in policing too many times to count, such as in the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report in 2021; this impacts all of us. The Times recently reported that the Met wrote to 253 officers disciplined for misconduct, and 99 who retired under investigation, to re-apply for their jobs; all applicants were re-vetted. Not starting with addressing vetting issues would do us all a disservice. Increasing capacity for PACE related assessments is also a no-brainer, as well as introducing accessibility and clear information at a baseline level.

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Last Update: February 06, 2023