AAs can be 'eyes, ears and voice of the court'

 AAs can be 'eyes, ears and voice of the court'
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Appropriate Adult scheme seeks to address needs of young suspects

In 1972, three teenagers were accused of the grisly murder of 26-year-old Maxwell Confait in his London home.

They were interrogated by the police without the presence of their parents and confessed to the crime.

One of them, aged 18, had the mental age of an eight-year-old.

The 15-year-old was assessed to be "highly suggestible", and the third was 14.

In court, forensic evidence showed that the teenagers could not have killed the man. The trio also claimed they were assaulted by police officers during questioning.

The case sparked an official inquiry into police procedures and eventually, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was passed in Britain.

This means that by law, an Appropriate Adult (AA) - a parent, guardian or professional - is required to be present during any police interview with suspects aged from 10 to 16, and with adults who are mentally vulnerable.

Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs recently announced that the Republic will introduce its own programme for those under 16 in phases from April.

Singapore's concept builds on an existing AA scheme for offenders with mental disabilities, which was rolled out in 2015. (See report, below.)

In an interview with The New Paper, Mr Chris Bath, chief executive of UK-based charity National Appropriate Adult Network (Naan), said an AA's role during the police interview involves addressing the needs of the child.

The AA is responsible for the well-being of a young suspect during the experience and for informing them of their legal rights.

Mr Bath added that the presence of an AA during the interview process would also help ensure a fair judicial outcome.

He said: "The AA can be considered the eyes, ears and voice of the Court who would need the evidence in a police interview to be collected in a reliable way.

"The AA scheme is a reasonable adjustment, considering the vulnerability of the child during the process. It does not mean the young are not held responsible for their actions."

Other countries have similar systems.

In New Zealand, a young suspect is allowed to make a police statement in the presence of a "nominated adult", who could be a parent, adult family member, or any other adult selected by the child.

The police must also go to "strenuous effort" to ensure a suitable person nominated by the young person is present.

Under Swedish legislation, it is possible in certain circumstances for the legal guardian to be present at interrogations held with the child, and social services should also be present.

In a report published in February 2015, the Ombudsman for children in Sweden also recommended that all children must be provided with legal counsel during interrogation.

In Singapore, only independent and trained volunteers are allowed to perform the AA role.

In the UK, police are required to first seek a parent to perform the AA role. If a parent or social worker are both not available, they can ask anyone else who is over 18.

This means trained AAs in the UK, who are required to go through 20 hours of training and two shadowing visits to police custody, support around one-third of arrested children, said Naan on its website.

There is academic evidence to suggest that parents are not notably effective as AAs, said Mr Bath.

A recent literature review by Naan outlines some reasons - a misunderstanding of the AA role, the threat of physical violence towards their child and aggression towards police.

But Mr Bath thinks there are advantages to having someone who knows the child well during the interrogation. The adult would be able to better understand how the child expresses distress.

"Even the best-trained volunteer could be treated as an adult stranger and the child could easily believe that the AA is connected to the police," he said.

Mr Bath thinks a hybrid system, where both trained AAs and someone who is familiar to the child are involved during the interview process, would be ideal.

Mr Bath stressed the importance of safeguarding the interview process involving young suspects.

He said: "In many situations, a child in police custody is not just a criminal suspect, she is almost always a victim as well."

Minds chief: AA makes sure subject understands police

Singapore's current Appropriate Adult (AA) scheme involves a trained volunteer who accompanies a person with intellectual or mental disabilities during police interviews.

Last year, there were 228 AA activations, said the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds).

Minds chief executive officer Keh Eng Song said the AA's role is to act as a bridge of communication during the police interview.

"This means the police subject does not misunderstand the questions asked or that he is not misunderstood by the investigating officer. This will ensure statements recorded are reliable," he said.

There are more than 240 volunteers under the AA scheme.

All volunteers will be required to attend a training session that covers topics such as basic police procedures and communicating with people with special needs.

Ms Tay Ai Jie, 24, volunteer management executive for the AA programme has been activated as an AA twice since last year and listed some challenges volunteers face during the interview process.

She said some subjects are unwilling to open up, perhaps due to the fear of being interviewed by an authoritative figure.

She said some suspects might not be able to grasp certain terminologies and concepts, and the AA would then rely on drawings.

Ms Tay added: "The AA's presence would provide some comfort as he is someone who is not there to 'prosecute' them.

"It is also important for the AA to establish a connection with the subjects, to make sure they know there is nothing to be afraid of, and that the AA is there to help.

"But ultimately, the most important thing is to be patient with people with special needs."

linheng@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 16, 2017.
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