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Is a caution really a ‘slap on the wrist’? – Not if you need a Police Certificate

I have, on rare occasions, recreationally used small quantities of ‘soft’ drugs, though less so as I’ve got older. I’m a professional, hard-working, and otherwise an entirely law-abiding citizen with no so much as a parking ticket.

However, in 2011 I became a criminal and will be deemed as such until my 100th birthday. I attended a music event and, wishing to relive my youth, I accepted a single tablet of ecstacy from a friend prior to entering the event. Having second thoughts about consuming it, I put the tablet in my pocket with the intention of returning it later. On entering the event, I was met by a line of policemen and sniffer dogs and was arrested. I was advised to accept a caution, as it was ‘only a slap on the wrist’ and ‘a first warning’. Taking this advice on board, I accepted the caution.

In the years that have followed, the implications of accepting that caution have been life changing. In short, my criminal record has done more harm than any drug use came close to.

It has emerged that a police caution is far from a mere ‘slap on the wrist’ or ‘first-time warning’. It isn’t even, in a literal sense, ‘a caution’. It’s a permanent record with lifelong, debilitating consequences.

It’s a relief to see that a review of the Disclosure and Barring Service disclosure system has moderated the effects of a caution with some minor offences now being eligible for ‘filtering’ from DBS certificates. This is of course dependent on the seriousness of the offence and the time elapsed.

However, what seems to have been overlooked is that criminal records, no matter how minor, are NEVER filtered from Police Certificates. These checks are almost always required for visa applications or foreign employment (in fact, foreign employers can’t request DBS certificates), with no legal limits on who may request these outside of the UK.

So how has my caution impacted on me?

Since receiving the caution, I got married. My wife is American and I sought to visit the USA with her. With a criminal record on a Police Certificate, tourist entry to the USA requires that I apply in advance for a visa. I’m well aware that the US itself has no access to PNC records and  that many ‘advise’ to simply not declare minor offences, as you will almost certainly be admitted through US customs. Not wishing to lie however, I applied for a visa in advance, disclosing my caution. My application was declined and I was effectively barred from entry to the USA.

I was recommended for a ‘waiver of ineligibility’ and assured that this would most likely be granted. I was told that it could take between 6 and 8 months and needs to be renewed every year. Whilst I’m grateful for this, during that process a far more serious issue emerged.

Despite my spouse being American, should we ever wish to move to the USA, I know I will find it incredibly difficult to secure employment. Therefore, as long as she is married to me, there is little likelihood that we would be able to go and live in the States. Whilst my marriage is currently solid, I have every expectation that this could ultimately destroy our marriage as it places an intolerable burden on my wife and any children we may have.

I’ve been seeking to use my qualifications and experience in international development to undertake volunteer work in various countries across Africa. All potential employers or visa issuers will require a Police Certificate. As these countries have little understanding of the purpose of a ‘simple caution’, to all intents and purposes, the contents of my Police Certificate appear no different from a custodial sentence or a more serious crime. As a result, I’m unlikely to be able to provide my services in these countries.

So for the purposes of foreign travel, even a minor offence and caution is far from being ‘a slap on the wrist’.

This is all the more striking as recent changes in the UK’s DBS guidelines mean that, in my case, from June 2017, my offence will not be visible on even an enhanced DBS certificate. Whether seeking employment or adopting a child, my DBS certificate won’t show my caution. That is to say, for even the most sensitive roles, my current offence history will be legally hidden as it will be considered irrelevant and myself rehabilitated.

Yet, for any foreign employment or visa application, I’ll be asked to provide a Police Certificate. There is only one form of Police Certificate and there is no filtering system available – it will either directly or indirectly (through a ‘No Live Trace’ statement), always indicate and provide details of my criminal record.

This seems to me a perverse double standard. I concede entirely that some elements of a criminal record may need to be visible for visa or employment purposes. But its frustrating that recent well considered standards and limitations to the provision of that information, agreed via the Supreme Court, are applied to interested parties in the UK but overlooked if requested by parties overseas.

Essentially, foreign employers, be they large corporations or small voluntary organisations, be I seeking to work in large engineering projects or helping build a village school, are granted complete access to my information that would be legally denied to those in the UK.

The issue of Police Certificates should be considered in parallel with the consideration being given to DBS certificates. Ideally, this would allow for some similar form of filtering arrangements to be applied to Police Certificates as are applied to DBS certificates.


By Lee (name changed to protect identity)

Useful links

  • Comment – Let us know your thoughts on this post by commenting below
  • Information – We have practical self-help information on Police Certificates and travelling to the USA for people with convictions on our Information Hub.
  • Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to working overseas from people with convictions on our online forum



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