Northern Ireland makes changes to the disclosure of convictions and cautions in response to Supreme Court ruling

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Yesterday, the Department of Justice (DoJ) in Northern Ireland announced it was making changes to what is disclosed on standard and enhanced criminal record checks, in response to the Supreme Court ruling in January 2019.

The criminal record checking process in Northern Ireland (administered by AccessNI) is separate to that in England and Wales (administered by the Disclosure and Barring Service) so these changes will only affect those applying for jobs and volunteer roles in Northern Ireland.

Announcing the changes in Northern Ireland, Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA, said:

“As the result of a ruling made by the Supreme Court in January 2019, I have removed a restriction in the AccessNI scheme whereby if a person had more than a single conviction on their criminal record, all convictions held on their criminal record were disclosed on a standard or enhanced AccessNI check. This change ensures that the scheme is more proportionate in terms of the information released and that individuals will not find obtaining employment more difficult because of old and minor convictions in their past.

 

“In addition, any information about offences committed by persons under 18 which were adjudicated outside a court process (non-court disposals), such as informed warnings, cautions or youth conference plans will be scrutinised by the Department’s Independent Reviewer of criminal record certificates and will only be disclosed where she determines that the offence could undermine the safeguarding or protection of children and vulnerable adults or the protection of the public.”

This important announcement by the DoJ deals directly with the two aspects of the current rules that the Supreme Court found were not in accordance with the law. The changes will be introduced on an administrative basis until legislation has been passed meaning that certificates issued by Access NI will now comply with the law. Unlock has called on Westminster to implement a remedial order as soon as practical so that the DBS can comply with the ruling when issuing certificates in England and Wales. A remedial order should ensure that youth cautions, reprimands and warnings were filtered out, and the multiple conviction rule no longer applied. This is, in effect, what the Department of Justice has announced for Northern Ireland.

It is disappointing that the Department for Justice fell short of committing to a process for considering wider reforms. The Supreme Court is not the only critic of the current regime – the Law Commission, the Justice Select Committee and David Lammy MP have all made recommendations for reform. The changes announced in Northern Ireland have not looked at the list of offences that cannot be removed from standard or enhanced checks (so-called “specified offences”) nor has it changed the fact that any length of prison sentence (including suspended sentences) can never be removed, even by way of some form of review. In addition, in Northern Ireland in particular, the time it takes for convictions to become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 remain far too long and are not evidence-based. Unlock continues to call for a root-and-branch review of the criminal records disclosure regime.

That said, we very much welcome the changes announced – they will have a significantly positive impact on people with old and minor criminal records in Northern Ireland. It is deeply disappointing that the UK government has yet to properly respond to the Supreme Court judgment as it applies in England & Wales.

Together with the charity Transform Justice, Unlock launched the #FairChecks movement to help push for a fresh start for the criminal records system. Our outdated criminal records regime is holding hundreds of thousands of people back from participating fully in society. Even a minor criminal history can produce lifelong barriers to employment, volunteering, housing and even travelling abroad, many years after people have moved on from their past. This must change. The #FairChecks movement is calling for the government to launch a major review of the disclosure of criminal records to reduce the length of time a record is revealed.

 

Written by Christopher Stacey, Co-director of Unlock

 

 

Notes

  1. Sign up and support the #FairChecks movement
  2. The announcement from the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland
  3. Find out more about our work on challenging the DBS ‘filtering’ process as it doesn’t go far enough
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