Disability / Police / Stop and search
Stop and search: disabled people’s rights
What does it mean to be vulnerable? What’s an appropriate adult? Can I get reasonable adjustments?
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 getting legal advice.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice (PACE Codes) sets the rules the police must follow. PACE Code C covers 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. PACE Code A covers stop and search.
What does being vulnerable mean?
The police must follow certain rules if they think you’re vulnerable. You should be classified as ‘vulnerable’ if
- you have a mental health condition or a mental disorder, and
- this condition means that you have difficulties understanding and communicating.
The police should look at each case carefully to see if they count as vulnerable under PACE Code C.
More information on being vulnerable and having a mental disorder is on our page about your rights if you are detained.
Communicating with the police and being understood
When stopping and searching people, the police must obey equality laws.
This means that the way they do their searches cannot discriminate against you for being disabled.
What if I can’t understand the police officer?
PACE Code A requires the police to take reasonable steps to help you understand your rights if they think you have trouble understanding them. If you are Deaf, or if English is not your first language, this can mean that the police must try and see whether anyone who is with you can help you understand your rights.
What if the police officer can’t understand me?
Many people have trouble responding to direct and unexpected questions. Some people are nonverbal or don’t speak. If the reason the police have trouble understanding you is due to being Deaf or disabled, then they should think about making reasonable adjustments. Skip to the bottom of this page for more information.
Can I get an appropriate adult if I’m vulnerable and strip searched?
What is an appropriate adult?
An appropriate adult is a person who looks out for the rights and welfare of under 18s and vulnerable people during a search. They help you communicate with the police, and look to see if the police are treating you fairly. They can report any unfair treatment to a more senior police officer.
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.
You can read more about appropriate adults on our page here.
You have the right not to be discriminated against
As well as your rights under the PACE Codes, you also have rights under UK discrimination law.
The Human Rights Act
Article 14 says that you should be able to enjoy all your Human Rights without discrimination. Discrimination here means treating you differently than others on certain grounds (like health and disability) without a good reason.
This only applies to public bodies, like the police.
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
The Equality Act also has rules on what public authorities should and shouldn’t do.
The Act bans various types of discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, which include disability. This applies to public bodies, like the police, but also private bodies, like employers.
It also requires the police to
- make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. This means the police should take steps to reduce the negative impact their policies and ways of working can have on disabled people.
- consider their Public Sector Equality Duty. Part of this means the police should take people’s disabilities into account. They should also take steps to meet disabled people’s needs, and
What does this mean if I get stopped and searched?
Reason for stopping and searching you
If the only reason the police are stopping and searching you is because you are disabled, this could be direct discrimination on the basis of disability.
Scroll down to the bottom of this page for information on what you can do if you think this has happened to you.
Accessible copies of the record of the search
If you are stopped and searched, you have a right to a written or electronic copy of the record of the search. The police guidance does not give information on how to get these in accessible formats, such as in braille or in easy read.
A reasonable adjustment you might want to ask for is for a copy of the search to be made in an accessible format.
Difficulties communicating or being understood
Depending on the situation and your needs, the duty to make reasonable adjustments could mean that the police could have a duty to do things like:
- speak slowly and clearly
- rephrase things and speak in plain language
- face you and allow you to see their lips
- write down their question and allow you to write your answer
- be okay with you not making eye contact
- give you time to think about the question
- allow you to communicate in a different way
- give you time to answer.
If the police’s policies on communicating with you have a worse impact on you because you are disabled, it could be discrimination. Skip to the bottom of this page for more information on what you could do next.
The Equality Act might also mean the police should consider reasonably adjusting their policies on using force when stopping and searching people. This includes using handcuffs. This is so their routine policies don’t end up having a worse impact on disabled people, despite applying to everyone.
If they don’t do this, and they have no objective justification for the policy, it could be indirect discrimination.
They should also be thinking about safe ways to stop wheelchair users and people who use assistive devices.
If the police’s policies on searching people have a worse impact on you because you are physically disabled, it could be unlawful discrimination if there’s no objective justification.
What are my rights on this?
Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them
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