House of Commons Library

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

Published Tuesday, November 10, 2015

This Commons Library Briefing gives an overview of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 which provides for some cautions and convictions to become “spent”.

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Spent cautions and convictions: The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

This Commons Library Briefing gives an overview of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 which provides for some cautions and convictions to become “spent”.  It explains that once a conviction or caution is spent the offender is treated, for most purposes, as if he had never committed the offence, but that some jobs and other activities will require disclosure of both spent and unspent convictions or cautions.

This briefing applies to England and Wales. 

The purpose of the Act

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 aims to give those with convictions or cautions the chance – in certain circumstances – to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

What is a spent conviction?

Under the Act, eligible convictions or cautions become “spent” after a specified period of time known as the “rehabilitation period”, the length of which varies depending on the nature of the conviction or caution imposed. 

Once the conviction or caution becomes spent, the offender is regarded as rehabilitated and (for most purposes) is treated as if he had never committed the offence. However, there are a number of exceptions to this general approach. For example, for some types of employment a person can be required to disclose details of both unspent and spent convictions or cautions.

Rehabilitation periods

Prison sentences of over 4 years are excluded from the scope of the Act and can therefore never become spent.

The rehabilitation periods for other types of sentence vary according to whether the person was cautioned or convicted and, if the latter, the type of sentence imposed.  Rehabilitation periods will generally be shorter for offenders aged under 18 when they were convicted.

The rehabilitation period for any unspent convictions may be affected if the individual concerned receives another caution or conviction during the rehabilitation period for the first offence, depending on the severity of the later offence.

Once a conviction becomes spent, it remains spent, even if a person is convicted of other offences later on.

When will a conviction or caution become spent?

Sentence/disposal

Rehabilitation period if aged 18 or over when convicted/disposal administered

Rehabilitation period if aged under 18 when convicted/disposal administered

A custodial sentence of over 48 months

Never spent

A custodial sentence of over 30 months but not exceeding 48 months

7 years from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

42 months from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

A custodial sentence of over 6 months but not exceeding 30 months

48 months from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

24 months from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

A custodial sentence of up to 6 months

24 months from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

18 months from the date on which the sentence (including any licence period) is completed

Fine

12 months from the date of the conviction in respect of which the fine was imposed

6 months from the date of the conviction in respect of which the fine was imposed

Community order

12 months from the last day on which the order has effect

6 months from the last day on which the order has effect

Simple caution, youth caution

Spent immediately

Compensation order

On the discharge of the order (i.e. when it is paid in full)

Disclosing spent cautions and convictions

A person whose conviction or caution becomes spent is referred to in the 1974 Act as a “rehabilitated person”.  Under section 4 of the Act, the general rule (subject to a number of exceptions) is that a rehabilitated person is treated for all legal purposes as if he had never committed the offence that led to the spent conviction or caution.

Exceptions

The exceptions to this general rule are set out in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975, SI 1975/1023, which lists a number of jobs, professions and other activities known as “excepted positions”.

Excepted positions cover (for example) work with children or vulnerable adults or roles in certain licensed occupations or positions of trust (e.g. police officers, solicitors).

If a person wishes to undertake an excepted position, then they can be required to disclose details of any spent convictions or cautions (other than protected cautions and convictions). 

These details are confirmed by way of a criminal records check conducted by the Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly the Criminal Records Bureau). 

Reform of the 1974 Act

During the Lords committee stage of the Bill that became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government tabled a new clause to the Bill to reform the 1974 Act in two key ways. 

  • to extend the scope of the Act to cover custodial sentences of up to 48 months
  • to change the length of some of the rehabilitation periods (in most cases by reducing them)

The new clause was enacted as section 139 of the 2012 Act.  The Act received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012. The Government had initially indicated that section 139 would be commenced in spring 2013; however there were delays in implementation and Section 139 was brought into force on 10 March 2014.

Commons Briefing papers SN01841

Authors: Jacqueline Beard; Sally Lipscombe

Topics: Administration of justice, Crime

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