Context of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 in gaining access to an adult suspected of being at risk of neglect or abuse: a guide for social workers and their managers in England

Published: October 2014

View the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984

Powers of entry under the Act

‘Saving life or limb’

Section 17(1)(e) of PACE gives the police the power to enter and search premises without a warrant, in order to ‘save life or limb’ or prevent serious damage to property.

However, it is not enough that the police should have a general welfare concern about somebody in order to use this power of entry, which may only be used in cases of emergency, not general welfare.

Application of Section 17(1)(e)

View the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Section 17(1).

Serious bodily injury: the case of 'Baker' v. 'Crown Prosecution Service' [2009] EWHC 299 (Admin), para 25 [9]

In this case, the court held that the police would need to be concerned about serious bodily injury:

The expression ‘saving life or limb’ is a colourful, slightly outmoded expression. It is here used in close proximity with the expression ‘preventing serious damage to property’. That predicates a degree of apprehended serious bodily injury. Without implicitly limiting or excluding the possible types of serious bodily injury, apprehended knife injuries and gunshot injuries will obviously normally be capable of coming within the subsection.

So, if the abuse suspected is of a type not related to serious bodily injury, this section will be of no use.

Breach of the peace

There is a common law (i.e. not in legislation) power of entry to deal with a breach of the peace. It is in addition, and separate from, the powers of entry in Section 17 of PACE.

A breach of the peace occurs when harm is actually done, or likely to be done, to a person or their property in their presence. It also occurs in instances when a person is in fear of being harmed in this way through assault, affray, a riot or other unlawful disturbance. In such cases an arrest can be made without a warrant.

In general, the power of the police to enter premises to prevent a breach of the peace only applies in emergencies. It is therefore unlikely to be justified in the majority of welfare-related cases.

Saving a child or vulnerable adult/breach of the peace: the case of 'Blench' v. 'Director of Public Prosecutions' [2004] EWHC 2717 (Admin), para 21

View: Blench v. Director of Public Prosecutions [2004] EWHC 2717 (Admin), para 21

In this case, the power of entry was easily made out. A woman called the police, stating that a drunken man was trying to remove her baby. There was another voice in the background either prompting or interfering. However, by the end of the call, she had changed her mind and said she didn’t want the police to come after all. The police attended, and attempted to force entry under Section 17(1)(e). The court was is in no doubt that the police had acted lawfully:

An emergency call had been made, in which it was stated that a drunken man was trying to take a woman's child. Although at the end of the report to the police [the woman] claimed the man had gone without removing the child, and she did not want the police to attend, the original account by her was on any view a highly worrying one and, given there was a voice in the background during the second part of the call interrupting or prompting [the woman], the police were fully entitled, as an exercise of their discretion under the section, to enter on to the premises without a warrant to investigate.

This was for the purpose of ‘securing (saving) the child’ (para. 23), but would equally apply to an adult at risk in a similar situation.

Met with aggressive and bizarre behaviour by a man at the door, the police used their powers of arrest relating to breach of the peace (see below), which had just occurred and to prevent an imminent repeat (paras 22–26).

The woman had changed her mind on the phone about police attendance, but this fact did not undermine the lawfulness of the police exercising a power of entry. This is of interest in relation to adult safeguarding. For example, it is not uncommon for a vulnerable adult, suspected to be under the control of a third party, to ring social services or the police in great fear or distress – only for the adult, or the third party – to ring back or say at the door that the adult has changed their mind about what may have happened and about involving the police (see 'London Borough of Redbridge' v. 'G' [2014] EWHC 485 (COP), para 20 [7].)

Arrest without a warrant for an indictable offence

However, if Section 17(1)(b) can be shown to apply (arrest without a warrant for an indictable offence), then the police do have the power to enter premises. An indictable offence is one that can or must be tried in a Crown Court. In relation to safeguarding, examples of this would be evidence of:

It is important to remember that because the police will need detailed information about the offence before being able to act under this section, it cannot be used to gain access to a dwelling simply to discover whether a crime is being committed or not. Therefore, any information a local authority can provide for the police would need to be sufficient for an arrest to take place in relation to criminal law. Always remember that this section relates to crimes, not welfare.

Power to arrest a person, without a warrant, who is committing, is about to commit, or has committed an offence

Section 24 of the Act deals with the power to arrest a person, without a warrant, who is committing, is about to commit, or has committed an offence. The police will need reasonable grounds for believing an arrest is necessary for one of the reasons listed in Section 24, before being able to act. Two key reasons that may be relevant in terms of safeguarding are:

In the context of this guide, if a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect that an adult is being subjected to abuse or neglect, the question will be whether this translates, under Section 24, into knowledge and reasonable grounds for suspicion; that the abuse constitutes a criminal offence; and whether it is therefore necessary to arrest the person for one of the reasons listed in Section 24.

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