Disability / Police / Police powers / What if I'm arrested?

What if I’m detained or arrested? Disabled people’s rights

What does being detained mean? What rights do disabled people have when they’re arrested or detained? Can I get an appropriate adult?

This page is part of a series on Disabled people’s rights, developed with Disability Rights UK (DRUK). You can read a summary of these pages, and download shorter versions too.

Disclaimer: this article is for general information in England and Wales. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. See our page here for information on how to get legal advice.

What does being detained mean?

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice (PACE Codes) set rules the police must follow. PACE Code C states how police officers should treat people they detain and question.

You are detained by the police if they stop you and you aren’t free to leave. This means that detention (being detained) can be in public. For example you can be detained

  • if  the police stop and search you
  • if the police bring you to a police station to question you or put you in a cell.

What does being vulnerable mean?

In certain situations, vulnerable people can get an appropriate adult.

Pace Code C says you should be classified as ‘vulnerable’ if you have a mental health condition or “mental disorder”, and this condition or disorder means that:

  • you have difficulty understanding fully or communicating fully about what is happening to you at the police station
  • it seems like you don’t understand the importance of what you are told, what the police ask you, or how you answer
  • you become confused and unclear about what is happening to you
  • you provide unreliable, misleading, or incriminating information without meaning to
  • you do what others tell you and agree to their suggestions without meaning to or without questioning them.

What’s a mental disorder?

Mental disorder is what the guidance calls having certain conditions. Having these conditions can mean that you count as vulnerable if you have difficulties communicating with others.

This can include:

  • autistic people
  • people who have depression or anxiety
  • people with personality disorders
  • people who have learning difficulties
  • children and young people who have behavioural disorders.

This isn’t a complete list. The Mental Health Act 1983 Code of Practice has more information about the conditions that fall under “mental disorder”.

The police should always at each case individually to decide if someone fits the definition of vulnerable under PACE Code C.

Who decides if I’m vulnerable?

The custody officer or custody staff should follow the procedure in PACE Code C to see:

  • whether you can be classed as vulnerable, and
  • if you must have an appropriate adult.

If the police have a reason to think you’re vulnerable, and there’s no clear evidence that you’re probably not, then the police should treat you as vulnerable.

What are my rights if I’m vulnerable?

If the police arrest you or take you into custody, and they have a reason to suspect that you are vulnerable, they should:

  1. Make reasonable enquiries to see if you might be vulnerable. The police should look into see what information is available which shows that you might be vulnerable.
  2. Make a record of this
  3.  Make this record available to police staff and others who communicate with you. This includes your solicitor, your appropriate adult and any healthcare professional. It’s especially important that they do this when communication is by telephone or live-link.

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What’s an appropriate adult?

Under the PACE Codes, an appropriate adult is a person who looks out for the rights and welfare of under 18s and vulnerable people. The appropriate adult can be:

  • your relative, guardian, or someone else who takes care of you
  • a person who is experienced in helping vulnerable people, or anyone who is over 18 but doesn’t work for the police.

What does the appropriate adult do?

The appropriate adult must:

  • support, advise and help you if you are asked to give information or take part in any procedure
  • help you communicate with police and understand your rights
  • look at whether the police are acting properly and fairly and respecting your rights
  • tell a police officer who is at least an inspector if the police are not respecting your rights.

Your appropriate adult can’t give you legal advice. You can have both an appropriate adult and a solicitor.

Who can get an appropriate adult?

Under PACE Code C, the police must contact an appropriate adult and have them present if they are detaining, arresting or questioning you if:

  • the police have a reason suspect you are vulnerable, and there is no clear evidence to show that you’re not, or
  • it looks like you’re under 18 and there isn’t any clear evidence that you’re over 18.

In certain situations, vulnerable people can get an appropriate adult when searched by the police.

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What if I have difficulties communicating or being understood?

PACE Code C also states that people who have difficulties communicating with others have other rights when taken into custody. You’re taken into custody when the police take you somewhere secure (like to a police station) and you’re not allowed to leave.

Who does this apply to?

  • People with visual disabilities, such as blind people, or people who have serious visual impairments
  • Deaf people
  • People who can’t read or speak
  • People who have difficulty speaking because of a speech impediment

If you have difficulties seeing or can’t read

If you are blind, seriously visually impaired or you can’t read, the custody officer should make sure that someone can help you. This person can check and explain documents given to you. They can also sign them for you, if you want.

This person could be your solicitor, a relative or an appropriate adult. They could also be someone else who is interested in your wellbeing and is not involved in the investigation.

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Can I get an interpreter?

Under PACE Code C, the custody offer must make sure that you have an interpreter to help you if it looks like:

  • you don’t speak or understand English
  • you are Deaf or hard of hearing
  • you find it difficult to speak.

The police can only interview you when they have provided you with an independent person who can interpret for you and provide other appropriate assistance.

This interpreter can also check that the record of your interview is accurate.

They can be in person or via video, if you’d still be able to communicate safely and securely with them.

When won’t I get an interpreter?

You might not get an interpreter if your interview is urgent, meaning that delaying them would likely:

  • harm or interfere with evidence that is linked to a crime
  • harm other people
  • lead to property getting lost or damaged, or make it harder to get property back
  • make it harder to arrest other people.

If you have difficulty hearing or speaking, you have the right to any appropriate help that is needed to allow you communicate effectively with the police.

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What about my assistance dog?

The Met Police guidance says an assistance dog is a dog that is used to help blind, deaf or disabled people. This includes Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs and Medical Protection Dogs.

The police should do their best to keep your assistance dog with you, their owner. This includes when you are placed in a cell, although the dog’s harness and lead can be removed. Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, your dog cannot be kept with you, the owner. In these situations, police staff should keep your dog in an office and let you know. Police staff should never put assistance dogs in kennels or with other dogs.

The police must give your assistance dog the following:

  • blanket
  • a water bowl
  • food given by the owner or the local guide dogs district team
  • arrangements for the dog to go to the toilet

More information on this can be found here.

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What other rights do I have?

As well as your rights under the PACE Codes, you also have rights under UK discrimination and equality laws.

The Human Rights Act 1998

The Human Rights Act incorporates rights in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Article 14 means you shouldn’t experience discrimination when you use your other Human Rights. Discrimination under Article 14 happens when:

  • You’re treated differently because of certain grounds, like health status or disability, and
  • There is no good reason for treating you differently.

Being detained and held by the police could engage your rights under

  • Article 3: your right to not be tortured or be treated in an inhuman or degrading way
  • Article 5: your right to be free and not locked up
  • Article 8: your right to privacy, including your right to physical integrity

If you think the police have broken Article 14 by discriminating against you in relation to your other human rights, you might want to get legal advice.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act requires police to

  • not discriminate against disabled people
  • uphold the Public Sector Equality Duty to not do anything that’s banned under the Equality Act
  • make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. This means they reduce the negative impact their policies and ways of working can have on disabled people. Reasonable adjustments should be considered in advance. The police shouldn’t wait for you to ask for them.

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Accessible cells

Police guidance says that the police must make reasonable adjustments so disabled people can be in police cells (custody suites). However the guidance says any reasonable adjustments made to cells shouldn’t reduce their safety and security.

Examples of reasonable adjustments could include making sure that:

  • disabled people can reach call bells in all police cells
  • mattresses are the right height to allow disabled people to move from the bed independently
  • hearing loops are available, and that custody staff should know how to use them.

Complaining to the police

You can complain to the police if you don’t like how they treated you. This includes if you feel they discriminated against you.

Please see our pages on police complaints for more information about how to do so.

If you think the police broke the law, you might want to get legal advice. Visit our page here on how to find legal help.

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What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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