What is the rationale behind the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974?

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In a week where the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, said that he was preparing a policy that looked at making changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA), we’re pleased to publish a paper by Dr Andrew Henley (Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Nottingham) on the rationale behind that piece of legislation.

The paper draws on the research conducted for Dr Henley’s doctoral thesis which examined the conception, passage and contestation of the ROA. Sections of this thesis were based on original archival research and Hansard records which were used to understand the rationale behind the ROA and the motivations of its sponsors.  It is revealed that whilst the architects of the ROA were mindful of the need for exemptions to its provisions, their motives were primarily compassionate and humanitarian, and concerned with the welfare of those who had successfully ‘lived down’ their convictions. They were also concerned with the fact that, in the early 1970s, the UK was out of step with international norms in not having a rehabilitation law.

The paper concludes that the principle of ‘spent convictions’ is now well-established and has been for nearly half a century. Any Government seeking to expanding arrangements so that more people with convictions can benefit from their record becoming ‘spent’ should face an easier task than the original proposers of the ROA given that exemptions to its effect are also well-established on safeguarding ground.  However, it would be quite wrong to reframe the original rationale of the ROA as being about ‘striking a balance’ between protecting the public or businesses from recidivist crime versus the rights of people with convictions to ‘live down’ their past offending.  Concerns with public protection played only a relatively small part in the debates which circulated around the legislation during its passage, given that there was always an intention to include exemptions to the effect of the law for these purposes.  The ROA is, therefore, better understood as motivated by humanitarian concerns and with the need for legislation in the UK to keep pace with that in other countries.

Download the paper here.

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