The glacial pace of criminal records reform

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 14 November 2012

For as long as I can remember there has been a debate about the declaration of criminal convictions to employers. The near 40 year old Rehabilitation of Offenders Act remains the key reference point for policy and practice in this area. Campaign groups have long argued that the Act needs a fundamental overhaul. Ministers and opposition spokespeople have often agreed in private, and sometimes in public, that things need to change. Reform has not generally followed.

Tweaks and adjustments over time have also resulted in changes in practice. Following the Soham murders, for instance, those who had accepted a police caution faced the possiblity of having to declare it for the rest of their lives. Under the Act the cut off point was five years.

Following a ruling by the European Court this could now change. It found in favour of a woman in Northern Ireland who claimed that the ongoing requirement for her to declare a police caution from some years previously was a breach of her rights. The Home Office was reported as 'reviewing this judgement' and considering the implications.

The European Court is currently in the news as a result of the Abu Qatada ruling. Whatever one's feelings about this particular case - and my view remains that the UK should never be in the business of deporting individuals to potential torture or unfair trial - the European Court plays a crucial role in challenging governments to uphold laws and regulations they have signed up to.

Reform, even at glacial pace, is to be welcomed. If the European Court is now forcing the government to introduce long-delayed reform on criminal records, as well as on other issues such as prisoners votes, it is only doing its job.