We have all made mistakes and most of us have been fortunate enough not to be held back by them. But, not everyone is so lucky; where past mistakes are made in the sphere of criminal law they can – and do – haunt people for the rest of their lives. This can be the case even if the outcome at the time was just a ‘slap on the wrist’ from the police, such as a warning or a caution.
Take Michael (not his real name). When he was 17, Michael was convicted of theft of a coat from a market stall. He was fined £30. Ten months later, 23 days after turning 18, he was convicted of stealing a motor cycle and driving without insurance. He was fined £50 and sentenced to 24 hours at an attendance centre. That was 36 years ago; he’s come a long way since then. He’s now in his fifties. However, Michael’s long-forgotten past has come back to haunt him and he’s concerned about his work as a finance director. He could lose his job and a career that he’s worked hard for.
Then there’s Anita (not her real name). When she was 11, she was playing with a lighter in the girls’ bathroom at school and set a toilet roll alight causing around £100 of damage. She was arrested for Arson and told that the reprimand she was given would come off her record when she turned 19. Then after months of being bullied in secondary school, she was involved in a fight. She and the other pupil were both arrested for Actual Bodily Harm. She was encouraged by the police to accept a reprimand rather than challenge it in court and was told it would come off her record in five years. Now nearly in her thirties, she’s a qualified English teacher. However, not only was her record not removed like she was told it would be, but her two reprimands come up on enhanced DBS checks and will do under the current DBS rules for the rest of her life. The hopelessness of trying to find work has led her to working abroad and to bouts of depression and anxiety.
Under the current system, Michael & Anita’s criminal record will be disclosed for the rest of their lives. That’s what we’re trying to change.
July 2020 update: Government responds to Supreme Court ruling with plans to change criminal records disclosure regime – The planned changes would finally bring an end to the disclosure of Michael and Anita’s criminal record.
Why is this important?
Since the Criminal Records Bureau (now the Disclosure and Barring Service, DBS) began in 2002, the number of jobs and volunteer roles that require a standard or enhanced check has grown significantly. In 2002, there were around 1.3 million checks. In 2015/16, there were over 4.2 million – an increase of over 300%.
Cautions and convictions are disclosed on these checks, even when they have become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. This is a problem for very many people; in 2015/16, more than 241,000 people had a caution or conviction included on an official disclosure from the DBS. In the last 5 years alone, nearly half a million childhood convictions were disclosed that were from over 30 years ago from when the person was under 18. This represents almost half of all childhood convictions disclosed. Hundreds of thousands of people are being affected well into their 40’s as a result of mistakes they made when they were a child.
A criminal record that someone gets in their youth can, in effect, be a life sentence. Due to shame and embarrassment about their earlier transgressions people will often avoid jobs which require criminal record checks. Also, employers regularly look for ‘clean’ records as part of their recruitment process meaning that even the most minor offences can rule people out.
That’s why we think the system needs to change.
What are we trying to achieve?
We are calling on the government to reform the system of disclosing old and minor criminal records. This will give many thousands of people every year a fairer opportunity in applying for work or volunteering without the stigma and shame of having to disclose a mistake that they might have made decades earlier.
What have we done so far?
- We launched a CrowdJustice campaign to raise money to support our legal work
- We published a report, A life sentence for young people, on the impact of criminal records acquired in childhood and early adulthood
- We published a briefing on the filtering of criminal records from DBS checks, setting out how we think the system needs to change
- We intervened in a landmark Supreme Court case in June 2018 – read our submission and read our response to the judgment.
- We launched the #FairChecks movement.
- July 2020 – Government responds to Supreme Court ruling with plans to change criminal records disclosure regime
- Join the #FairChecks movement to help get a fresh start for the criminal records system.
- Please help us to continue with this work. Donate now here. Money we raise goes towards our campaign work to get the best possible outcome for people with old and minor criminal records. We really need your support to do this!
Find out more details about our policy work on the DBS filtering system.