What is the Appropriate Adult Scheme in Singapore?
Tom, a 15-year-old with a diagnosed intellectual disability, has limited cognitive abilities and struggles with understanding complex information and making informed decisions. He becomes a suspect in a theft case and is arrested by the police. During the investigation process, he is unable to understand the questions posed to him by the investigation officer due to his vulnerability and he panics.
In Singapore, there is a scheme called the Appropriate Adult Scheme that is intended to support individuals like Tom. Given his vulnerability and the potential challenges he may face during the legal process, the Appropriate Adult Scheme would come into play to ensure his rights and well-being are protected during the process of investigations.
This article will cover the following topics related to the Appropriate Adult Scheme:
What is the Appropriate Adult Scheme?
The Appropriate Adult Scheme is a system designed to safeguard the rights and welfare of individuals that may require additional help during police investigations. It allows an independent, trained volunteer (i.e., an Appropriate Adult) aged 21 and above to be present with young or vulnerable persons during interviews with agencies such as the police and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
Types of Appropriate Adult Schemes and Who are They for?
There are two types of Appropriate Adult Schemes.
1) Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS)
The first is the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS) which currently applies to suspects under the age of 16. Appropriate Adults (explained below) are currently activated for all cases involving young suspects under the age of 16.
2) Appropriate Adult Scheme for persons with intellectual or mental disability (PWIDs)
The second is the Appropriate Adult Scheme for persons with intellectual or mental disability (PWIDs) who are required to give a statement to the police during investigations. This may include detainees, victims or witnesses suspected of having an intellectual disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or mental health issues. If it is made known to the officers that the subject has medical or mental health conditions and would require special attention, prior to bringing the person in for the investigation, the police will contact the parents or school first, if operationally feasible.
If the subject displays any medical or special needs during the interview, officers will pause the investigation and activate support measures such as an Appropriate Adult as well.
Alternatively, the authorities will be able to identify suspects who are vulnerable by administering a test that determines if the apprehended suspect is likely to suffer from any intellectual disability.
Who is an Appropriate Adult?
Appropriate Adults refer to the trained volunteers under the Appropriate Adult Scheme. They are usually adult individuals and are objective parties who are not related to the young/vulnerable individual and their families. Their role is usually to facilitate communication between the police and the vulnerable person. Further, they act as an advocate for the person’s rights and interests, ensuring that they understand the questions asked and the implications of their responses.
It is important for the Appropriate Adults to declare any conflicts of interest, or if they have been legally trained or worked in law enforcement to ensure objectivity as much as possible. It is also crucial to note that the objective of the Appropriate Adults is not to offer legal advice, which would fall under the purview of a lawyer.
What is the Purpose of the Appropriate Adult Scheme?
The Appropriate Adult Scheme is intended to support young and/or vulnerable persons if they find themselves part of law enforcement investigation processes. These processes can be especially distressing to individuals who might not have sufficient understanding or awareness of what is going on.
During investigation interviews, the Appropriate Adult would facilitate effective communication by clarifying any questions posed by the authorities which may be challenging for the young/vulnerable persons to understand. At the same time, Appropriate Adults can assist in ensuring that the authorities understand what the young/vulnerable persons are expressing when answering questions posed by authorities.
For example, during police interviews, the appropriate adult would ensure effective communication between the young/vulnerable person (Y) and the police. He would observe the interview and intervene when necessary to clarify or rephrase questions to ensure that Y understands them. If the Appropriate Adult observes that Y is struggling to express himself or provide coherent responses, the Appropriate Adult can help to interpret his statements, ensuring that Y’s intentions are accurately conveyed.
Another area where an appropriate adult could assist in is clarifying legal terminology. For vulnerable persons, legal terminology and concepts can be challenging. The adult would play a vital role in simplifying and explaining complex legal terms, ensuring the vulnerable person comprehends the questions asked and the implications of his answers. The adult may use layman’s terms, visual aids, or other supportive techniques to enhance the vulnerable person’s understanding.
Appropriate Adults are professionally trained to look out for signs of distress in young/vulnerable persons and lessen the interrogative pressure on them. This is important as they go through a potentially stressful process during interviews. Hence, one of the aims of providing emotional support is to prevent young/vulnerable persons from mishandling the stress and harming themselves as a result.
Even though investigation processes are potentially stressful for everyone, it would be more concerning when a vulnerable and/or young person is concerned because of its impact on their well-being. Young suspects may lack the emotional and psychological resilience to cope with the stress and pressure associated with the investigative process (as compared to an adult). This can lead to heightened anxiety, fear, and distress, potentially exacerbating any existing vulnerabilities or mental health conditions they may have.
Furthermore, distressing investigative procedures can have long-lasting psychological and emotional impacts on vulnerable, young persons. It may result in trauma, increased vulnerability, and a negative perception of the criminal justice system.
For instance, the Appropriate Adult scheme was extended to include minors below 16 years old after the death of Benjamin Lim, a 14-year-old boy, who committed suicide after he was questioned by the police over an allegation involving outrage of modesty. Benjamin was taken from school and questioned at the Ang Mo Kio Police Division without his parents or teachers present. The case of Benjamin sparked public concern as State Coroner Marvin Bay said that the police and his school had taken steps to engage him sensitively. However, an ‘additional refinement’ could be for a school counsellor to have accompanied Benjamin to the police station. What this means is that the investigation processes could be potentially refined, to give greater attention to young suspects’ emotional state during and after the processes. In fact, in response to this case, various experts put forth their recommendations that touched on communicating clearly and directly with a young suspect, putting their worst fears at rest and offering a reassuring presence.
By having a responsible adult present during police interactions, the scheme also acts as a safeguard against coercion, intimidation, or other forms of improper conduct that could impact the fairness of the investigation. It could also prevent instances of potential abuse or mistreatment of vulnerable individuals.
When Might Appropriate Adults Not be Activated?
As set out in the Parliamentary Oral Reply in April 2023, the Minister said that Appropriate Adults were activated for all cases where the agencies have requested these Appropriate Adults based on the activation criteria (i.e., young/vulnerable person).
However, there could be extenuating circumstances which require these agencies to exercise discretion not to activate an Appropriate Adult for the interview. Some examples that were cited were “urgent interviews [that] may be required to prevent the disposal of evidence, detain accomplices still at large, or prevent the commission of another offence”.
The Appropriate Adult Scheme ensures that vulnerable individuals can effectively communicate and understand the processes and proceedings involved in their interaction with the police. This is particularly important for PWIDs as well as young individuals.
Facilitating clear and meaningful communication helps prevent misunderstandings, ensures that the person’s statements are accurately recorded, and reduces the risk of coercion or false confessions.
If your loved one is a young person/minor and/or a PWID who has been charged with a criminal offence, you should consult a criminal defence lawyer for further guidance. A criminal defence lawyer can help to:
- Clarify the purpose of the Appropriate Adult Scheme;
- Explain eligibility, where they can inform you about who qualifies as a vulnerable individual under the Appropriate Adult Scheme;
- Explain the role of the Appropriate Adult.
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