Unlock response to Supreme Court judgment on criminal records disclosure regime

Unlock, the leading charity for people with convictions, has today responded to the judgment of the Supreme Court on the criminal records disclosure regime. The charity provided an intervention to the court to highlight the unjust consequences of the current regime and the alternative, fairer systems available.

Commenting on the judgment, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:

“We welcome today’s judgment by the Supreme Court. Unlock intervened in this vital case to help the court understand the importance of the issues. We are pleased the court has ruled that two aspects of the criminal records disclosure scheme are disproportionate and in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights; in particular, the blanket rules which require the automatic disclosure of all convictions where a person has more than one conviction, and the requirement that some childhood cautions be disclosed indefinitely. This is an important ruling which stands to affect many thousands of people with old and minor criminal records who have been unnecessarily anchored to their past.

 

“Today is a crucial step towards achieving a fair and proportionate filtering system that takes a more calibrated and targeted approach towards disclosing criminal records. Recent reviews by the Law Commission, Justice Select Committee, Charlie Taylor and David Lammy MP have all stressed the need to look at the wider criminal records disclosure regime. It is now time for the government to act. We strongly urge the government to take prompt and considered action on the filtering system, as well as committing to carrying out a fundamental review of the wider criminal records disclosure regime.”

In the last 5 years alone, over 1 million youth criminal records were disclosed on standard or enhanced criminal record checks that related to offences from more than 30 years’ ago. The current system has multiple, harsh consequences which can have damaging effects on individuals. It deters people from applying for employment, and causes high levels of stress, anxiety and feelings of shame and stigma for those who do apply. The current regime acts as an additional sentence that often runs for life. It desperately needs reforming.

While certain offences clearly should be disclosed to employers, it is plain common sense that a fair system should not unnecessarily blight the lives of people who are trying to get on in life by disclosing old, minor and irrelevant information which holds them back and stops them from reaching their potential.

Some of the shortcomings of the current filtering system have today been recognised by the Supreme Court. The court described the rule for disclosing multiple convictions and its impact on individuals as ‘capricious’ (para 63). The inclusion of youth warnings and reprimands in the disclosure regime is described as a ‘category error’ and an ‘error of principle’ (para 64).

A fair, proportionate and flexible filtering system should be developed which protects the public without unduly harming the ability of people to move forward positively with their lives. The Supreme Court accepted that a fair system can be based on rules and pre-defined categories. We believe it is possible to develop an acceptable system which operates principally with automatic rules, but these must be the right rules with the right outcomes. There are a number of practical steps that the government can take which we would support, including:

  1. Removing the ‘multiple convictions’ rule and so enabling more than one conviction to be filtered
  2. Reducing the list of offences not eligible for filtering
  3. Creating a distinct system for the disclosure of criminal records acquired in childhood, and taking a more nuanced approach to those acquired in early adulthood.

Crucially however, we believe that the system must have a discretionary filtering process with a review mechanism which could be accessed by people whose criminal records do not benefit from the automatic filtering rules. Although the Supreme Court did not consider this to be necessary for the regime to be in accordance with the law, we believe this is vital to allow some cases to be considered on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that the rules do not operate unfairly. We urge the government to take this opportunity to look at introducing such a scheme that incorporates lessons from other similar schemes, like that in Northern Ireland.

More broadly, there is an overwhelming case for a fundamental review of the criminal records disclosure regime. Reviews by the Law Commission, Justice Select Committee, Charlie Taylor and David Lammy MP have all concluded that there is a need to look at the wider regime. The criminal records disclosure system and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 are increasingly unfit for purpose and is open to abuse by employers and others. We encourage the government to take this opportunity to commit to carrying out a fundamental review to address these systemic issues.

Enver Solmon, CEO of Just for Kids Law, said:

“We are delighted that the Supreme Court has upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal in favour of our client and are proud to have secured a landmark judgement that will benefit thousands of children issued with cautions each year, a shocking disproportionate number of whom are from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

 

“Our client should never have been given a criminal record that stays with him for life. The judgement makes clear that the disclosure of reprimands and cautions, the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist, is disproportionate and damaging to the future rehabilitation of children preventing them from moving on from their past. A parliamentary inquiry reached the same conclusion nearly two years ago when it stated that children were being unfairly denied a second chance. There is now an overwhelming view shared by the higher courts and MPs that the government should act immediately to ensure no child who is given a caution ends up with a criminal record that stigmatises them for life. The government should also now conduct a wide-ranging review of the entire criminal records disclosure regime for children and and young people.”

Corey Stoughton, Advocacy Director of Liberty, said: 

“P made a mistake a long time ago and has been unfairly punished ever since. Using overly broad bureaucratic rules that deny people meaningful careers by forcing them to to carry a scarlet letter for life is both cruel and pointless”

 

“Today’s court decision holds the promise of a fresh start for thousands of people who deserve a second chance. The Government must finally reform this arbitrary scheme”

 

Notes

  1. Christopher Stacey is Unlock’s spokesperson. Profile here.
  2. Unlock is an independent, award-winning national charity that provides a voice and support for people with convictions who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence.
  3. There are over 11 million people in the UK with a criminal record.
  4. Unlock’s website is unlock.org.uk.
  5. High-resolution images for media use are available from Unlock’s Flickr account.
  6. Unlock’s report, A life sentence for young people, was published in May 2018 and can be downloaded at https://www.unlock.org.uk//youth-criminal-records-report/
  7. Unlock has published a briefing on the DBS filtering process – available to download at https://www.unlock.org.uk//wp-content/uploads/DBS-filtering-Briefing-May-2018.pdf
  8. Unlock was represented in these appeals by Salima Budhani and Theodora Middleton, Bindmans LLP, and barristers Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Jesse Nicholls, Doughty Street Chambers.
  9. Unlock’s intervention in the Supreme Court can be downloaded at https://www.unlock.org.uk//wp-content/uploads/1-Gallagher-2-P-G-W-Unlock-Case.pdf
  10. The judgment was handed down on Wednesday 30th January 2019. Press summary here.
  11. Press and media coverage of the judgment can be found here.
  12. Warnings and reprimands are now known as youth cautions.

 

About the cases before the Supreme Court

These appeals consist of 4 cases: P, G, W (appeals from the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) and Gallagher (an appeal from the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland). Unlock intervened in the case.

In all four cases, the Government appealed, having lost in the Court of Appeal. There are summaries of the cases on Unlock’s website – https://www.unlock.org.uk//policy-issues/specific-policy-issues/filtering/cases-challenging-dbs-filtering-system/

 

The current filtering system

The Police Act 1997 created the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS – formerly the Criminal Records Bureau), which provides details of a job applicant’s previous convictions to prospective employers. For certain types of work, particularly work with children or vulnerable adults, the standard or enhanced certificates issued by the DBS used to list all the job applicant’s previous convictions.

However, in 2013, the Government amended this scheme following a Court of Appeal ruling (T v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester) to introduce a “filtering” process. Single convictions for non-violent, non-sexual offences that did not lead to a custodial sentence (including a suspended one) will be “filtered” (i.e. not disclosed) after 11 years (five-and-a-half years if the person was under 18 at the time of the offence).

The filtering process does not apply if a person has more than one conviction – regardless of the minor nature of the offences or the person’s circumstances at the time.

 

Support for reform

  1. The Law Commission, in its review of criminal records disclosure and non-filterable offences (published January 2017), said: “Given the vast array and magnitude of the problems identified by our provisional assessment of the disclosure system as a whole, there is a compelling case to be made in favour of a wider review. Our conclusion is that the present system raises significant concerns in relation to ECHR non-compliance and, what may be considered to be, the overly harsh outcomes stemming from a failure to incorporate either proportionality or relevance into disclosure decisions. An impenetrable legislative framework and questions of legal certainty further compound the situation. This is an area of law in dire need of thorough and expert analysis. A mere technical fix is not sufficient to tackle such interwoven and large scale problems.” See https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/criminal-records-disclosure/
  2. The House of Commons Justice Select Committee, in its report into the disclosure of youth criminal records (published October 2017), concluded that the aim of the youth justice system was being “undermined” by the system for disclosure of youth criminal records “which instead works to prevent children from moving on from their past and creates a barrier to rehabilitation.” See https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmjust/416/41607.htm
  3. In his review of the youth justice system (published December 2016), Charlie Taylor, who is now Chair of the Youth Justice Board, said “It remains the case that a criminal record acquired in childhood can have far-reaching effects that go well beyond the original sentence or disposal. Certain sentences will never become spent, and certain convictions or cautions will always be disclosed when an individual seeks employment in a particular field. A key principle underpinning my approach to the review is that children who break the law should be dealt with differently from adults. In my view the current system for criminal records lacks a distinct and considered approach to childhood offending.” See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-youth-justice-system
  4. David Lammy MP, in his review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system (published September 2017), said: “It must be recognised that a job is the foundation for a law-abiding life for ex-offenders, but that our criminal records regime is making work harder to find for those who need it the most. The system is there to protect the public, but is having the opposite effect if it sees ex-offenders languishing without jobs and drawn back into criminality. A more flexible system is required, which is capable of recognising when people have changed and no longer pose a significant risk to others.” See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lammy-review-final-report

 

Case studies

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.

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.

Under the current filtering system, Anita and Michael’s criminal record will be disclosed on a standard or enhanced DBS check for the rest of their lives. That’s what we’re trying to change.

More case studies can be found in our youth criminal records report and in our briefing on the DBS filtering regime.

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