Public Law Protection of Vulnerable Adults: The Debate Continues, So Does the Abuse

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• Summary: This article examines the need for a new public law designed to protect vulnerable adults who are being abused. It considers the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on the debate on the need for a new law, and considers developments in the USA and proposals for reform in Scotland. Social workers are frequently in the position of having to deal with the abuse of adults, without a clear legal framework that empowers them to act to protect the person being abused.
• Findings: The article concludes that there is a need for some form of public law designed to protect vulnerable adults. Existing law, which is mainly judge-made, is inappropriate and lacks the required predictability and procedural safeguards. The article argues that the European Convention on Human Rights imposes a duty on states to protect vulnerable adults; however, in devising such a law, regard must be had to the right under the convention to a private life. Any new law must carefully balance these two (often competing) rights. Further difficulties may arise when seeking to define ‘vulnerable adult’ and to identify the precise moment of intervention. The term ‘vulnerable adult’ should include in its definition not only people who lack capacity, but others who are extremely vulnerable and at grave risk.
• Applications: Existing provisions do not provide adequate protection for abused vulnerable adults. The governments in Wales and England need to learn from the US experience and also look at the Scottish Law Commission’s proposals. The current soft-law approach is no longer adequate; new legislation is urgently needed. Social workers should consider their professional response to the current situation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-316
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2002


  • elder abuse
  • human rights
  • incapacity
  • protection of older people
  • vulnerable adults


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