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Criminal Records V Open Justice?

The use – or misuse – of Criminal Records made headline stories in 2012 when it emerged that police trawled the Criminal Records of those who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster, to discredit the innocent victims or lay a false trail. This week as the use of criminal records are again in the news, the MP, Simon Reevell – a barrister by profession – warns against the approach. Not only may the word ‘criminal’ be a misnomer but the wider approach to CRB checks and cautioning must change.

This week two items made the news. They may appear to be only loosely connected, but are in fact far more closely linked. They concern the CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks which allow potential employers or the leaders of organisations to establish whether or not an individual has matters recorded against him on the police national computer.

I use the phrase ‘matters recorded against him’ because it is not simply a record of criminal convictions. This distinction is important because it may also include cautions. In fact, the increased use of cautions is the second matter in the news in recent days.

Historically a caution could perhaps have been thought of as a form of slap on the wrist. However a caution today is recorded in a similar manner to a criminal conviction and so can have the same impact or operate in the same way as a CRB check. This is unfair. Why? Because of the manner in which all too frequently they are administered.

Increasingly cautions are being used by police officers that see them as a quick and easy way to tick off an alleged crime as solved. The individual who accepts the caution is often ignorant of the fact that they are admitting the criminal conduct alleged (a prerequisite for the caution being administered). Moreover, too frequently an individual is not disabused of the assumption that they have actually been given some form of warning that might be convenient to accept – not least because it can be accepted without any long term consequences. Three months later that individual applies for a job and the results of the CRB check come back…..! The CRB process actually trawls even more deeply than the caution.

At the discretion of the Chief Constable the results may refer to not only allegations of which an individual was acquitted but also allegations that the CPS decided not to pursue before the matter even came to trial. None of this is open justice and our approach to CRB checks and cautioning must change.

*Simon Reevell is Member of Parliament for Dewsbury. He is author of ‘Courts Not Cautions’ which was published in Politeia’s volume Freedom, Responsibility and the State.

Simon Reevell

Simon Reevell was the Member of Parliament for Dewbury between 2010 and 2015. He is a barrister who specialises in Military Law and also advises the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking. For Politeia he was co-author of Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice (2014) and Freedom, Responsibility and the State: Curbing Over-Mighty Government (2012).

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