Police cautions

Senior people, including police officers, have been making a lot of fuss about the inappropriate use of cautioning by the police.  For those who don't know a caution is a case disposal that police officers use instead of sending somebody to court.  The caution is recorded on their criminal record, although it's not itself a conviction for any offence.  The caution will be disclosed in some circumstances, e.g. if you go to court as a defendant or witness (if it's relevant) or if you apply for a CRB check.  You may also have to disclose cautions when you apply for jobs.  A caution is more serious than a fixed penalty notice.

Suspects can only receive a caution if they ADMIT THE OFFENCE.  I've written that in capital letters because it is very important.  You must confess and show remorse, or at least an understanding that what you did was wrong, to be eligible for a caution.  You cannot receive a caution if you deny the offence in anyway, e.g. by giving an alibi or putting forward a defence.

There's a lot of nonsense talked about inappropriate cautioning, which distracts from the real inappropriate cautions.  The typical example you'll hear is that in the past year 23 (or whatever, I'm making a number up here) people were cautioned for rape.  Think of rape and you think of a demented man grabbing a woman in a dark underpass, holding a knife to her throat and forcing her to submit to sex against her will.  That is rape and I seriously doubt that any offence with those particulars has ever been dealt with by way of a caution.

Cautions for rape are very rare.  They are usually given out because the prosecution are not going to be able to prove the allegation in court, maybe because the victim does not want to go to court or maybe for another reason.  I suspect more often cautions are given out for "offences" that you might not expect, as in my next anecdote.

A couple of years ago I dealt with a "rape" of a girl under 13.  My client was her "attacker" and I know, you're thinking I'm a nasty bastard for using the quotes on those two words.  But, this "attacker" was a tiny and very scared 11-year-old boy.  He gave an account, which I completely believed, whereby he had been shanghaied into going into a block of flats with this girl where she had performed oral sex upon.  He told me he was nervous about what was happening, but nonetheless went along with it.  Teachers at school found out, informed the girl's mother and between them the police were called.

After I had left the police station and against my advice he, on the advice of his mother, accepted a caution (for kids they are known as reprimands and final warnings, but it's basically the same thing) for rape - on a separate point I really do believe that at least 50% of parents should never be allowed near their child in custody, but that's a whole other post.  Because of his caution he is now a registered sex offender and must notify the police of his address.  That is a wholly inappropriate caution for rape, but not for the reasons the press would have you believe.

Last weekend I represented a couple of men who had been arrested for affray.  They told police they had been attacked outside a night club by three men.  They had serious injuries to prove it.  Despite putting forward an account in which they were the victims of an unprovoked assault they both accepted cautions after I had left the police station.

It seems to me that cautions are regularly being used to dispose of cases that where securing a conviction would be very difficult, if not impossible, but where the suspect is vulnerable to the promise of a speedy conclusion.  I assume that this boosts detection rates and is much cheaper than prosecuting.


  1. The Chief Constable interviewed on Today gave a very unconvincing example of the appropriate use of a caution. He cited the case of two teenagers in a country location returning from a fishing trip, and in possession of a knife consistent with use in that activity. he contrasted that with the two teenagers in possession of a knife in a nighttime incident in a city centre. He put forward the former as a clear case where a caution would be appropriate, ignoring the fact that there would have been a solid defence to any charge, as there was legitimate reason for the possession.

    1. You really have to wonder whether it makes any difference to have police running the police since they seem to know nothing at all... honestly, what difference could employing someone from business as Chief Constable in that guy's place make?

  2. The thing that I most often meet as police misuse of caution is people who claim that the police told them they'd be "let off" if they took the caution, and didn't explain that it would be noted on their criminal record.

    I have no personal knowledge of whether this was true, as I wasn't present on any of these occasions, but I've heard the claim from several people who are usually reliable. Whether or not that is something the police actually do, I do think that lay people need to be more aware of what a caution actually is.

    1. http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/u-k-government-clear-cautions-from-enhanced-crb-checks-after-two-years

  3. While I have heard the same as RogerBW, lay people do get told, by the duty solicitor in the nick very clearly just what a caution actually is - in that intimidating environment they just don't/can't take it in.

    1. My feeling is that it's something that's worth telling people about before they get into that environment - like "trying to explain things to the arresting officer is unlikely to be helpful".

  4. 1. Would it be helpful if there was a requirement, prior to giving a caution, for the police to read out a statement of the suspect's rights and the implications of the caution, which the suspect would then have to sign, in the presence of an independent solicitor, to confirm he has understood?

    2. In the above cases cited, where it appears cautions were wrongly administered, would it be possible for these people to challenge them in court later and perhaps have them overturned? I am thinking in particular of someone who is under 18 at the time.

    1. They do read out some info about accepting the caution. It's been a few years since I've been present when somebody has been cautioned so I can't remember what is said. Although, it's worth putting yourself in that person's place. Imagine you are signing a new gym membership. You don't want to be talking about the small print, you just want to get in to start your session so all the small print goes over your head.

      Yes you can challenge a caution later on, although it's going to be difficult and expensive.

  5. It is particularly concerning when people's employers take action against them for having accepted a caution. For example:

    "A police caution is a warning given to people persuaded to admit to minor first offences. Cautions, like other police out-of-court disposals, lack safeguards. Police sometimes advise people to either accept a caution and close the matter, or be prosecuted if they refuse: many people, through ignorance, accept cautions for things that they did not do, or for which they would have a valid defence in court. Accordingly, employers are blocked from taking action against employees on the basis of cautions (the caution is immediately ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974).

    The Army has, however, broken the law and taken action against 1,400 soldiers, including dismissing many of them. In an unpleasant but familiar reflection of the chain of command’s insistence on covering-up its own misconduct, in a story on 7 Jan 13, The Times warns that an Army Justice Board meeting in January 2012 noted that: ‘Admin action has been incorrectly taken in 1,400 cases between Nov 2008 and Aug 2011… the longer we take no action the fewer the ‘in time’ complaints about other sanctions there will be.’ In other words, the Army bragged that the longer it conducted the cover up, the fewer soldiers could get justice, and it intended to cite the palpably useless Service Complaints system as a figleaf to deflect criticism if the story ever broke – despite intending to block such complaints as 'out of time'. In many cases, damage to soldiers' careers will be irreparable.

    Thousands of Afghanistan veterans have been unfairly treated and exposed to much-heightened risk of redundancy, because the Army broke the law, and then tried to hide the fact. Even though the story is now in the open, these soldiers have no effective redress: the Army planned to use the service complaints system to deny redress to soldiers, on the grounds of being ‘out of time’. The Times added that ‘the briefing note said that, for anyone who was no longer serving and was too late to make an internal complaint, the only recourse would be a judicial review’ – in other words, the Army deliberately closed down all options so that former service personnel would only be left with the cripplingly expensive, and thus effectively unavailable, option of judicial review.

    Having acted unlawfully in respect of at least 1,400 soldiers, the Army are now to be allowed to decide for themselves what is or is not an appropriate form of redress which – one can reasonably infer – will not even come anywhere close to the upper end of an award which would be available to an employment tribunal in respect of unfair dismissal in comparable circumstances. This is another example of why Service Personnel need access to Employment Tribunals."

    See: Army faces huge bill for victims of rough justice, The Times, 7 Jan 13, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/defence/article3649756.ece

  6. My son, who is 14, and three friends of the same age saw what they were convinced was a cannabis plant in the window of a flat near their school. He and another boy climbed onto the roof of the entrance porch to get a closer look and believing that it was cannabis my son reached in through the window to photograph it. The occupants saw them shouted and the plant was dropped by my son (who was holding it) and fell to the ground. One of the other boys picked up the stem and threw it over a nearby wall.
    A neighbour who had seen them - this was about 6.30pm and still light - ran after them and called the police. He told the police that he had seen them take a handbag, a claim which subsequently the police have discounted. The police, however, want to caution all the boys for theft in relation to the dropped pot plant and say they will pursue theft convictions if they don't accept. This seems totally over the top for what went on. The boys all gave the same version of events when questioned. They admitted what they had done but did not admit any intention to steal. None of the boys have had any previous brushes with the law. It was basically a dare to get a photo of the plant. The owners of the flat did not report the 'crime' even though they saw the boys, though they have given a statement since. Three of the boys were arrested shortly afterwards, my son was arrested at midnight by two aggressive women officers who dragged him out of bed. They were all held at the police station until 3.30am. MY son was questioned at around 2 am. By this point all the the boys were terrified and sleep deprived. The caution was presented to us by the police and the barely qualified young duty solicitor as if it was a favour to get the matter cleared up quickly. There was no proper explanation of what a caution actually meant. My son is adamant that he will not accept the caution. He says he won't be bullied into to admitting something he didn't do, i.e. steal. The other parents have, however, taken the cautions as they just wanted the whole episode behind them. To me this is a classic example of the police using its ability to intimidate people who are not used to finding themselves on the wrong side of the law and have no wish to be so into taking a cautions just to boost their clear up rates.

  7. I am a sixty year old woman with no previous convictions for anything.
    Having been attacked and injured by a young fit off duty Police Community Support Officer (I think that is what a PCS is) in the course of an argument over her dog jumping up at me and my dog, I was bullied and bamboozled into accepting a caution. The implications of this were never explained and I was assured it was a way of 'walking away ' from the situation


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