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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Legislation and Policies that surround Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults

Legislation and Policies that surround Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults

Last updated on 28th March 2023

In the UK, there’s a strong legal framework for safeguarding vulnerable adults. Working in the private care sector or most public services will mean you need to have a clear understanding of the rights of vulnerable adults and your responsibilities towards them.

With there being a range of legislation that covers safeguarding vulnerable adults, it’s important to get clear understanding of it all. We’re going to look at some of the key questions you might have about adult safeguarding, as well as give you an overview of the laws.

The questions we will cover include:

  • What does safeguarding adults mean?
  • Who is defined at a vulnerable adult?
  • What are the underlying principles of safeguarding vulnerable adults?
  • Whose job is it to protect vulnerable adults?
  • What are the relevant laws for safeguarding adults?

What is safeguarding adults?

The overall idea behind safeguarding adults is to protect their life, keep them safe and prevent them from being threatened with or experiencing neglect or abuse. That’s a pretty big remit, so let’s break it down.

Some adults need extra help to be able to take care of themselves; there are lots of reasons this might happen and we’ll cover the definition shortly. When an adult is seen as being vulnerable, it’s more likely that someone could mistreat them or take advantage.

Safeguarding adults is a way to stop any mistreatment, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or financial.

It’s not all about stopping a person coming to harm, though. It’s also important that the well-being of vulnerable adults is promoted – it’s not enough to stop them being harmed; a vulnerable adult should be given opportunities to learn, develop, and have positive experiences.

Safeguarding needs to focus on the outcomes for the vulnerable adult. There are lots of processes in place which do need to be followed, but getting something positive out of it in the end is as important as the rules being applied.

Who is a vulnerable adult?

The first thing to note when looking at who is a vulnerable adult is that you should never assume vulnerability. It can be easy to assume by looking at someone’s appearance or knowing their age that they’re automatically vulnerable, but that’s not a fair assessment – although these factors can be a part of a deeper understanding of the person.

How can we determine if someone is vulnerable? To parse the legal definition, a vulnerable adult is:

  • Over 18 years old
  • Someone who needs care and support
  • At risk of experiencing abuse or neglect
  • Someone who can’t protect themselves from harm or exploitation.

Under this definition, 150,070 safeguarding enquiries were raised in 2017-18.

There are a number of considerations to look at when deciding whether safeguarding vulnerable adults legislation might apply to a specific case.

Here are the main factors you’d look at to assess vulnerability, with some examples:

  • Mental illness – Those with mental illness can get taken advantage of, for example someone with anxiety could be manipulated into letting someone take over their finances. However, it’s not a catch-all, mental illness that’s managed with medication and/or therapy doesn’t necessarily make that person vulnerable.
  • Physical disability – A disabled person who isn’t able to bathe and clothe themselves needs extra support from carers, and the opportunity for physical abuse, for example, is possible. Not all physical disabilities result in vulnerability – a person who has lost one eye isn’t necessarily open to abuse just because of that one factor.
  • Short-term or long-term illness – Some illnesses can indeed make a person vulnerable, whether their condition takes away mobility or their ability to make clear choices. It’s all about context; someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer may be susceptible to emotional abuse regarding their condition, but that’s not always going to be the case.
  • Age – We all know an old person who might struggle a little to organise their money or get dressed in the morning; these could be factors to consider in an assessment of their vulnerability because they might start to rely on someone. Not all elderly people are the same, so don’t make assumptions. On the flip side, an 18-year-old isn’t automatically able to look out for their own interests.
  • Homelessness Without a place to sleep that’s secure, a person can become vulnerable to different types of abuse, being drawn into sex work or low-level crime by those around them. Not all homeless people have that experience and a person might have been able to retain their personal support networks whilst looking for somewhere to live.
  • Substance abuse Most substances have the ability to change the way we think and behave in some way, making us more vulnerable to getting taken advantage of. A woman given heroin may become more compliant and not resist sexual abuse, yet a person can be dependent on alcohol and still retain control over all elements of their life.

These are all risk factors in an adult being assessed as vulnerable. No one point alone is going to determine whether a person is vulnerable.

Factors can definitely make vulnerability more likely; in people aged over 85, one in every 43 people is assessed as vulnerable, as compared to one in every 862 in adults aged 18-64.

What are the principles of safeguarding?

Having understood how to decide if someone needs to be safeguarded, we’ll now look at what safeguarding broadly means. You can probably think of lots of ways to protect a person, but you don’t want to go too far.

Knowing that, there are six key principles when looking at safeguarding vulnerable adults and applying legislation correctly.

  • Empowerment means to let the person being safeguarded have as much say as possible in the decisions being made about them
  • Prevention of harm is always better than dealing with the consequences afterwards
  • Proportionality stops protections going too far; any interventions should be as unobtrusive as possible
  • Protection allows for those in greatest need to be looked after and supported adequately
  • Partnership encourages local solutions to be found across agencies; rarely will there be a solution that needs only one sector to implement
  • Accountability ensures that decisions are made transparently, without secrets and with clear reasoning.

Who is responsible for safeguarding vulnerable adults?

Put simply, everyone is responsible for safeguarding adults. If you were to see a person being abused or taken advantage of in any setting, you should report it so a professional can help.

There is a lot of safeguarding legislation that gives responsibility to people in certain positions to act on reports of adult abuse. The primary legal responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable adults lies with local authorities.

A group of people need to come together to find the best ways to protect vulnerable adults, working within the principles of partnership and accountability that we just discussed. This group is known as a Safeguarding Adults Board (SAB) and every local authority has one.

On this board will generally be representatives from:

  • The local authority that set it up
  • Local Clinical Commissioning Groups that cover the area
  • The Chief Officer of Police that covers the local area.

Whilst people can also be invited along from local ambulance services, the Department of Work and Pensions, local advocacy groups, and trading standards, for example.

In the private sector, there should be a safeguarding officer role in each organisation. This person is responsible to train staff about safeguarding adults and relevant legislation, as well as report any potential safeguarding issues to the local SAB.

What safeguarding vulnerable adults legislation should I know about?

In the last two decades, to protect vulnerable people properly has been a focus of new law in the UK. We’ll cover the laws you need to be aware of and which parts are relevant to protect vulnerable adults in the UK.

Care Act 2014

This Act refers to safeguarding vulnerable adults by outlining the legal responsibilities when protecting vulnerable adults. It sets out that local authorities have the primary responsibility and must work in partnership with health and care organisations.

The Act places emphasis on the overall well-being of the vulnerable adult, rather than basic safety and protection. Enshrined in this Act are the key principles we outlined above:

  • Empowerment
  • Prevention
  • Proportionality
  • Protection
  • Partnership
  • Accountability.

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

The aim of this law is to make sure unsuitable people don’t end up working with vulnerable adults. People who have a criminal history of abuse and exploitation are placed on a list that is checked when anyone applies for a job with vulnerable adults.

The vetting and barring system defines the type of work that requires a check of the list, with regulated and controlled workplaces. It aims to prevent future abuses being carried out by someone with convictions of crimes that are abusive.

Health and Social Care Act 2012

The main element of this Act for safeguarding vulnerable adults is Regulation 13. This section of the Act is there to protect adults within the health and social care systems from being abused. There are also provisions that prevent restraints being used incorrectly and removing someone’s liberty improperly.

Mental Capacity Act 2005

Applying to anyone over the age of 16, the 5 key principles of the Act are:

  • Presumption of capacity – Until you can determine otherwise, assume the adult is able to make their own choices
  • Support to make a decision – It’s ok to offer support to someone to make their own choices, but it should be support and not coercion
  • Ability to make unwise decisions – Just because someone is making a poor or unwise decision doesn’t automatically mean they lack mental capacity
  • Best interest – When someone has been deemed to not have mental capacity, anyone acting on their behalf must act in their best interests
  • Least restrictive – If you’re making choices for someone without mental capacity, you should always choose the least restrictive, but safe, option.

Equality Act 2010

Under the Equality Act, there are nine protected characteristics, namely:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation.

When assessing whether a person is vulnerable, there can’t be any discrimination based around these characteristics – all choices, assessments, and decisions must be consistent.

Human Rights Act 1998

This piece of legislation is very broad with a total of 13 articles outlining everyone’s basic rights in law. When it comes to safeguarding vulnerable adults, there are four articles that you need to be aware of:

  • Article 2 protects the right to life
  • Article 3 affords freedom from degrading and inhumane treatment
  • Article 5 enshrines the right to liberty and security
  • Article 8 guarantees the right to a private life, family life, and a home life.

A person is able to seek legal recourse, or have someone go through the law on their behalf, if these rights are violated.

Data Protection Act 2018

Originally, the Data Protection Act (DPA) was introduced in 1998 but it’s since been superseded by the 2018 Act that brought into law the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the EU. It lays out how and when you’re allowed to process, or use, data you have about a person. There’s also rules about when you can share data.

In terms of how this applies to vulnerable people, there may be times that you need to withhold that you have information to be able to protect a person. Similarly, you may have to share information with other agencies so you can seek protection for a vulnerable adult.

The law allows for this if your actions will prevent harm, allow for an effective response, or is in the public interest, among other reasons.

Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998

In this law, workers in both the public and private sector can disclose usually private information to protect the public interest. It’s known as “whistleblowing”, and anyone who does it is protected from victimisation and discrimination at their workplace.

In terms of vulnerable adults, it gives workers protection to point out where people aren’t being safeguarded properly. It’s ok to tell authorities about someone’s treatment and issues if you believe the person isn’t being protected in line with the laws we’ve gone through here.

No Secrets 2000, a government White Paper

The principles of this White Paper, that was designed to protect and safeguard vulnerable adults, has been made redundant by the Care Act 2014 that we went through a little earlier.

The paper outlined the responsibilities of local authorities and health and social care providers to safeguard adults inside a proper framework. These issues have been more clearly defined in the Care Act and this is what you should refer to if you want to understand these issues.


There’s a lot to know about safeguarding vulnerable adults; legislation, responsibilities, principles. A lot of common sense is built into the processes; acting in the best interests of the vulnerable person whilst not overstepping boundaries are integral to the system.

Every area of the UK has its own Safeguarding Adults Board. If you ever have concerns about safeguarding issues, this is where you can turn to.

Keep in mind the main principles that are part of the Care Act 2014 when making any decisions or assessments and taking any actions. This means you need to empower the adult in their choices, prevent harm from happening where possible, only do what’s necessary to protect, yet offer protection when it’s needed, work alongside other people and agencies, and be accountable and transparent in your decisions.

By following this, and being aware of what constitutes a vulnerable adult, you will be able to ensure you’re meeting your moral and legal responsibilities to safeguard vulnerable adults.

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About the author

Joanne Rushton

Joanne began her career in customer services in a UK bank before moving to South East Asia to discover the world. After time in Malaysia and Australia, she settled in Hanoi, Vietnam to become an English teacher. She's now a full-time writer covering, travel, education, and technology.

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