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A personal response to today’s Supreme Court ruling

Elli has been actively involved in our work to push for changes to the DBS filtering rules and she featured in a BBC Newsnight piece that aired the night before the Supreme Court hearing started in June 2018 (watch again). Here, she responds to the news about the judgment in that case…

I’m pleased with the Supreme Court ruling and am hopeful that the government will change this system that holds back adults from work because of mistakes in youth.

Imagine being told that something reckless you did when you were an 11-year-old would impact the rest of your life?

At 19, I knew precisely what I wanted to do – to teach. My first step was to get some experience working with children so I applied to volunteer with a charity. This was the first time I read the words I now dread seeing on an application, “all volunteers are required to have an Enhanced DBS Disclosure”. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, so happily awaited the paper back.

When it finally arrived, the enormity of seeing two criminal records, there in writing, hit me. I had forgotten all about that sorry episode when I was fresh out of primary school. Now though, panic coursed through me. How was I going to get into university? How was I going to tell the charity? How was I ever going to move on? How would I even get a job? 

Arson. ABH (Actual Bodily Harm). On paper, two of the most severe offences a person can commit. Yet there they are. On the piece of paper which has to go to every future employer. Fortunately, in this instance, I was lucky. I was able to explain that the cautions I had were mistakes from when I was a child. 11 and 15 years old.

Like most children, I was impressionable and pushing boundaries. Fire is simply fascinating to a child. I had just started secondary school when a friend and I were playing with a lighter in the girls’ bathroom and set a toilet roll alight causing a small amount of damage. I was arrested (yes, arrested as an 11-year-old) for Arson – not criminal damage as my parents were told it would be – and told that the reprimand that I was given would come off when I turned 19. This still seemed harsh but was reasonable enough as it simply would be forgotten about when the time came.

A few years later in a different school, after months of being bullied, I was involved in a fight with another pupil in the school playground. The mother of the other pupil called the police rather than let the school deal with what it was – a cat fight between two teenage girls – where the only damage was some loose hair and few scratches, not to mention the embarrassment. I was arrested for Actual Bodily Harm (as was the other pupil) and encouraged by the police to accept the reprimand rather than fight it in court as it would come off in five years. Again, taking the advice of the police seemed appropriate as there would be no long term consequences.

Now approaching 30, and a qualified English teacher, I have faced hurdle after hurdle because of the childhood mistakes I made. From nearly being thrown off my teacher training course midway through when the university found out I had a criminal record, to countless job applications not even reaching interview stage. On the rare occasion I got to an interview stage, I have had to clarify my criminal record – constantly dragging up an embarrassing, irrelevant and juvenile piece of my past – to potential employers, strangers to me.

Fed up of working zero hour contracts with little stability, my husband and I made the decision to teach abroad at an international school last year. This will be our indefinite future because there is no guarantee that every time I apply for a teaching job in the UK, that my application will not go straight in the bin as the criminal record box is ticked – it is often just a box on the first page. They are not to know that this happened when I was a child, and I am given no chance to put the record straight. 

Although my offences are reprimands they will never be filtered off under the current system because they are considered violent crimes. All this despite them being more than half my life ago.

The sad reality is that I am one of the lucky ones. I have had a supportive background, gone to good schools, lived in a nice cul-de-sac, and I am white. I have met countless others from broken homes, people growing up in the care system, who have not been so lucky – purely down to misfortune where they haven’t had the chances. These are the people that are sorely needed in the public sector – be it social care or teaching – where their experience would benefit so many others who find themselves in the same shoes. Surely that’s what we want as a society, and particularly from a justice system? To prevent these things happening. To educate and rehabilitate. To not judge, and to give second chances. Surely the primary aim for the justice system is to reduce crime and reduce reoffending. By giving these people jobs, it could go a long way.

Now that the Supreme Court has rules that the scheme as it applies to childhood warnings/reprimands is disproportionate, I hope that reforms of the justice system can be made – for the betterment of so many people, and indeed British society as a whole.

Find out more about Unlock’s campaign to wipe DBS checks clean of old/minor records, including our response to the Supreme Court judgment. 


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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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