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Many criminal and civil laws aim to protect people from harm. These laws protect all of us and mean people face consequences if they carry out unlawful acts. The laws also act as a deterrent for anyone wanting to harm others.

In addition to these laws is a separate statutory and regulatory framework that protects adults who have care and support needs and due to those needs are unable to protect themselves from harm. This group is commonly known as ‘adult at risk’. This framework balances protecting these adults from harm and protecting their right to live freely, without undue interference from the State. The right to protection, care and support should be within the wider context of the adults' autonomy (where they have capacity to exercise it) and wider wellbeing.

Legal reforms and development of duties have often strengthened and improved protection for disabled people’s rights. The UK adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. It lays out disabled people’s right to freedom of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 15) and freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse (Article 16).

The Convention aims to ensure that we proactively remove the barriers disabled people face to participate fully in society, so they can lead a life with dignity and respect. Until 2014 there was a patchwork of legislation, guidance and case law which created a legal framework for safeguarding adults who are unable to protect themselves from harm.

Following significant consultation and review, the Care Act 2014 created a new statutory framework for safeguarding adults in England. This replaced a swathe of other laws and the ‘No Secrets’ Guidance (which set out how commissioners and care service providers should protect adults at risk of harm).

Most of the duties outlined in this framework focus on what public bodies – especially local authorities – should do. But there are further specific duties for those who care for adults at risk.

There are three key areas of law to be aware of if you or your organisation works with adults at risk of harm.

  • For public bodies, charities and voluntary organisations – public bodies have specific, proactive duties to safeguard adults at risk of harm. Similar requirements are often placed on charities and voluntary organisations that deliver functions on their behalf.
  • For regulated providers –organisations providing certain services for adults at risk must adhere to relevant safeguarding regulations. These services include personal care, supported living, nursing homes, clinics, hospices, ambulances, and community services.
  • For individuals –there are specific duties on individuals who care for adults at risk of harm, and specific offences that protect adults at risk of harm from misconduct by those caring for them. These duties and offences apply to individual members of staff or volunteers.

There are also other safeguarding duties (to protect adults at risk of harm) that this guide doesn’t cover in detail. Most of these duties only apply to specific regulated services and don’t affect most charities or voluntary organisations. These include duties about:

  • the threshold for statutory provision of care and support
  • decision making when someone has limited or intermittent capacity
  • the treatment and detention of people with mental health problems.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) publishes a list of relevant legislation.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 15 June 2022

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