People with Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System was an ARC project completed in 2016 which was funded by The Big Lottery Fund. The project has resulted in a guide for professional and family carers, and concluded in a learning event which was held in Cornwall on 26 April 2016.


People with learning disabilities are hugely over-represented in the Criminal Justice system, yet often denied their basic rights and appropriate support.

Learning disability providers and family carers have often found themselves in the position of being asked to act as an ‘Appropriate Adult’ to someone in custody with no training or expertise.

The aim behind both the guide and the learning event was to answer the question, “What should you do if you are asked to act as an ‘Appropriate Adult’ for someone you support who is in Police custody?”

People with Autistic Spectrum Conditions are seven times more likely to come into contact with the Police than the general population. 15% of young people in custody are on the autistic spectrum. Young people with learning disabilities are ten times more likely to find themselves in custody than the general population and represent 30% of people in custody. 10% of the prison population has a diagnosed learning disability (that’s 8,000 people in England & Wales), and 60% of prisoners have difficulties with “communication skills".

Nationally, 1.4M detentions and voluntary interviews are conducted each year. In 280,000 of these the detained person is described as ‘mentally vulnerable’, but appropriate adult (AA) services are used in only 45,000 of these cases (that’s 16%). Additionally, one third of custody sergeants have received no training in identifying ‘vulnerable’ suspects. In the 84% of detentions and voluntary interviews that do not involve an AA research shows that many untrained AAs don’t understand what is happening any more than the detained person, and that they are intimidated by the situation. Our project aimed to increase the understanding and confidence of this group, and the learning event proved very successful in this regard. Participants were asked to score the following factors of the event:

  • Has your knowledge and understanding increased? 86% approval (average 4.3/5)
  • Has your confidence in this area of work increased? 87% (4.4)
  • As a direct result of the event will your practice change? 76% (3.8)
  • As a result of the event will you be able to support someone to have a better life? 78% (3.9)

Amongst comments received were:

  • "Fantastic! Thank you so much. I will share it far and wide, as it’s incredibly useful."
  • It would be good to transfer information to improve services in Wales.”
  • “The service user’s story was powerful and useful.”
  • “The mix of knowledge and expertise in the room were particularly useful.”
  • “It was really informative.”
  • “The life experiences and evidence of practical situations proved very helpful.”
  • “So much knowledge and information to be shared. More time needed.”
  • “I recently supported three clients who had contact with CJS and the knowledge I gained today would have been very helpful at that time. It will help in the future and it would be good if this information was more widely available as I learned very little through experience.”

The event was attended by 35 people (mostly ARC members) from across the South West region. Introductions to various services working within the Criminal Justice pathway were provided by experts:

The event concluded in round table discussions and a Q&A session.

Acting as an Appropriate Adult – Top Tips

The main discussion points made regarding acting as an appropriate adult without training were:

  • Be aware that custody centres are scary places (more police officers are assaulted in custody centres than on the streets).
  • A risk assessment should be completed for anyone in custody, and should be regularly reviewed.
  • As an AA, you are NOT there to offer legal advice. You should never discuss the incident/allegation with the detained person (DP); you are there to help them through the process (keep telling them what is going to happen next) and to keep them calm (e.g. talk about their favourite TV programme).
  • If you are asked to act as an AA, but are not comfortable or happy with the role, you can say “No”.
  • If you have witnessed the crime you cannot be an AA.
  • As an AA you need to develop a positive working relationship with the Custody Sergeant. If you are unhappy with actions taken by the Sergeant you can ask to see an Inspector.
  • Be aware – the custody process is likely to take 4 – 6 hours. Take a book!
  • You can sit in the cell with the DP if they request it, but you need to know them well if you agree - it is a vulnerable situation as the cell will be locked.
  • The DP must understand the caution - get them to explain it to you in their words. If the person does not understand the caution, think about whether they are fit for interview.
  • People need to have ‘capacity’ to be criminally liable. If they do not understand that what they did was a crime it is unlikely that they will be charged.

Police Interviews

  • When in the interview you need to be confident that the line of police questioning is conducive to getting an answer, e.g. does the person understand? Beware of closed questions.
  • If the interview is going nowhere, request a break, or ask the DP if they want a break.
  • Make sure you can see the DP’s face - look for body language and eye signals.

Police Caution

  • One possible outcome is for the DP to accept a police caution (this is different from the caution people are given before questioning). The DP should be given an impact statement before they accept the caution - they must understand this as there are serious implications in accepting a caution. A caution is an admission of guilt; it will show up on an enhanced DBS for life.
  • Ask the Custody Sergeant to explain the Caution to the DP. Contact the DP’s solicitor and make sure they are happy for the DP to accept the caution.

Aftercare for you

The whole experience of police custody can be traumatic, especially if a serious crime is involved. The police, qualified AAs, and other criminal justice workers all have access to counselling or supervision - you should think about what support is there for you.

Download your free guide:

The full guide 'People with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system: a guide for carers and learning disability services' is available for free download now.

NBLF logo 2.B. There may have been legislative changes since this guidance was produced in 2016.

This project was funded by the Big Lottery Fund.