Safeguarding Adults Definitions

Find out more about the definitions and terminology surrounding safeguarding adults at risk from history of safeguarding legislation up until the Care Act 2014.

“Vulnerable adult”

The definition of “vulnerable adult” originated in the 1997 Consultation Document “Who Decides?” ‘No Secrets’ was then published as government guidance for developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse. Introduced in 2000 it encouraged organisations to work together to protect vulnerable adults from abuse.

The definition and use of “vulnerable adult” from No Secrets (2000) will have been used in many older safeguarding vulnerable adults policy and procedures but should now be replaced with the new definition from the Care Act (2014).

“Adults at risk of harm”

We have now moved away from the terminology of ‘vulnerable adults’ towards ‘adults at risk of harm’, usually shortened to ‘adults at risk’ in policies and procedures. There may also be reference to an ‘adult with a care and support need’.

The policy and procedures that any organisation implements should reflect this and include the current definition of adults at risk rather than that of vulnerable adults.

The Care Act 2014 makes it clear that abuse of adults links to circumstances rather than the characteristics of the people experiencing the harm. Labelling groups of people as inherently ‘vulnerable’ is seen to be disempowering.

For organisations this shift in language can be confusing. Some organisations had found it helpful to refer to specific categories of people who may be at increased risk of harm, for example adults with a physical or learning disability or older people.

Safeguarding Adults

“Adult safeguarding” is working with adults with care and support needs to keep them safe from abuse or neglect. It is an important part of what many public services do, and a key

responsibility of local authorities.’ – Care Act 2014

All organisations have a duty to ensure that the welfare of all adults is ensured. As part of this they need to understand when to implement their safeguarding adults reporting procedures.

Safeguarding duties apply to an adult who:

  • Has needs for care and support (whether or not the local authority is meeting any of those needs) and;
  • Is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse or neglect; and;
  • As a result of those care and support needs is unable to protect themselves from either the risk of, or the experience of, abuse or neglect.


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