People shouldn’t be written off for life because of past mistakes

Requirements for life-long disclosure of minor cautions are disproportionate.

Requirements for life-long disclosure of minor cautions are disproportionate

Last week saw an unprecedented level of news coverage on the way that criminal records should be disclosed. First, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday (in the case known as ‘T) that the criminal records disclosure regime was disproportionate.

In short, the court found that the life-long disclosure of minor cautions and convictions was ‘disproportionate’ and ‘not necessary in a democratic society’. Perhaps most importantly, it ruled that the system was ‘not based on any rational assessment of risk’.

Then, the following day, a Parliamentary Inquiry into the youth court system, led by Lord Carlile, published a wide range of recommendations, including ways that criminal records should be dealt when people are under 18.

Both of these announcements relate, in part, to the ‘filtering’ process that the government established in May 2013, and which is operated by the Disclosure and Barring Service.

To be frank, the government clearly felt forced into bringing in this system in the first place, as a result of an earlier Court of Appeal ruling in the ‘T’ case. As a result, the government did the bare minimum it felt it needed to do, and we’ve said right from the start that this system doesn’t go far enough. The case below is a typical example:

“I was convicted of theft when I was 19. I was charged with two offences because I stole money on two different days, but when I went to court, I thought I was just given one conviction. Since then, I’ve got a degree in Forensic Sciences and worked in various roles which have involved a lot of trust and honesty.

“Now I’m 38 and I’m looking to move career. But all the jobs I want to go for (ideally I’d love to be a teacher) involve an enhanced check, and although I got excited when I saw that there was this filtering process, I’ve since discovered that my conviction will show up because it’s seen as more than one conviction, plus it involved a suspended prison sentence. I know I deserved to be punished for what I did, but that was nearly 20 years ago now, and it means that I’m simply avoiding any job that involves a DBS check because I feel ashamed at having to talk about it every time I go to an interview. I think people should be given a clean slate at some point.”

We know from our Helpline that many people with minor cautions and convictions continue to be excluded from the filtering system. A common example is where someone has multiple convictions, like the above case. This can include someone who’s been overpaid benefits for two months running – the result is that they might be charged with two offences, and so never eligible for filtering.

The list of offences that are ‘not eligible’ is also quite a blunt instrument, and the lengths of time (11 years for an adult conviction) are too long.

So it’s not surprising that, in the first three months that the filtering system operated, only 15 per cent of people with convictions has a conviction filtered from their DBS check. This means that 85 per cent will continue to have their convictions disclosed for the rest of their lives.

That’s why we agree with the recommendations made in the Carlile report. The filtering periods for young people should be reduced, they should apply to people with more than one conviction, and they shouldn’t automatically rule out anybody who’s been given a short prison sentence. And it’s right that the system recognises young people as meriting more favourable treatment.

But we need to look at how the system works for adults too. The recommendations made by Carlile could equally apply to adults. A scale could be developed for more serious convictions, so that a longer period of time ‘conviction-free’ has to have passed before it could be filtered. For more difficult sentences, and more serious offence-types, there could be a process which allows people to apply for their convictions to be filtered – some form of ‘exceptional case’ procedure.

Ultimately, we need a more nuanced system which goes further than the ‘minimum-level’ that the government has so-far introduced. Having been involved in the original group that reported to the home secretary, it was clear to me that the old system, as well as the system that was subsequently introduced, were lacking in their evidence-base, which is what the Supreme Court found too.

Hopefully, last weeks’ news will be the start of a more informed discussion about the criminal records disclosure system, and the developing of a more proportionate system for the disclosure of past cautions and convictions.

Christopher Stacey is director (services) of Unlock, an independent information, advice and advocacy charity for people with convictions

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12 Responses to “People shouldn’t be written off for life because of past mistakes”

  1. Peem Birrell

    >>This can include someone who’s been overpaid benefits for two months running – the result is that they might be charged with two offences, and so never eligible for filtering.

    Wow, it’s an offence to be overpaid benefits?

  2. swatnan

    For very minor offences probably not, but for more serious crimes they should remember that their actions have had a lifetime effect on their innocent victims, and so they should retain that memory for the rest of their life. They could repent and do charitable work to absolve their sins, to some extent.

  3. Pete Sid Williamson

    You lot are full of shit! – Stop Immigration Start Deportation, NATIONAL FRONT!!!

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    Thanks for the propaganda.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    Oh yes, absolutely. It’s also an offence which does not require intent.

  6. Sparky

    Really? This comes from the Citizens Advice Bureau website:

    “Benefit fraud is a criminal offence and is treated differently to benefit overpayments. This is because benefit overpayments can happen for other reasons. For example, because the benefit office made a mistake or because you were not aware that you had to tell the benefit office about a change of circumstances which meant you were entitled to less benefit.”

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    The dividing line is basically entirely up to the DWP guidance, which the government can (and does) change.

    The “dividing line” between what’s handled in terms of recovering overpayments and prosecuting has moved down, sometimes in very uneven ways.

  8. Sparky

    That is irrelevant. All you’ve said is that the government previously persued small frauds through magistrates courts but now uses crown courts, and now prosecutes all frauds rather than previously writing some off.

    You said in your original post, quite emphatically that benefit overpayment is ‘an offence that doesn’t require intent”. That’s just incorrect. Only benefit overpayment as a result of intent can be subject to criminal prosecution. When perusing a criminal prosecution the CPS has to see evidence of intent. Without intent there is no case to answer, and the CPS couldn’t take it on. That is an indisputable fact.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    So you don’t understand the word “relevant”, and didn’t read my post.

    What I said remains completely true, and neither you nor I addressed that in the two previous posts. There is *no intent required* in the law on this, and while previously the guidance (to 2012) required intent, the guidance was changed.

    That you claim there are no strict liability offences, well…

  10. SpArky

    Your first post said “it is an offence which doesn’t require intent.”

    I understood that mean “receiving benefit overpayment breaks criminal law whether or not the recipient had intent to do so.”

    Is that what you meant or not?

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    So you’re asking stupid questions now because you refuse to accept a clear law. There is NO INTENT NEEDED.

    In the past, the CPS have had safeguards on this, but they’ve been systematically removed.

  12. Lucia Bowler

    I have failing to notify change in circumstances, even though I signed off at the job centre and declared I was no longer unemplyed. I presume the housing benifit would be notifyied. I recieved one payment a few weeks later and just thought it was the amount left owing to me. I then moved house and 2 years later was summoned to court abouyt it, even though I explained the situation I got a conditional discharge and it stays on my record, unfair

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