Legal Eagle: If police scrap cautions, is it goodbye to slaps on the wrist?

Getting off with a ‘slap on the wrist’ and a consequence-free caution could soon be a thing of the past.

The government is planning to scrap the use of police cautions where those who commit minor offences are given a formal warning across England and Wales. The new scheme will replace the use of simple cautions and will be tougher than the current system, giving victims more say.

Offenders would be able to repair any damage they have done or pay compensation for less serious crimes. Those who commit offences that are more serious would face court if they fail to comply with conditions set out by police.

So what would the new rules look like? MM have teamed up with Olliers Solicitors, a leading criminal law firm based in Manchester, to find out.

Pilot Scheme

The system will be trialed for a year in the Staffordshire, West Yorkshire and Leicestershire police force areas, starting this November. The pilots will operate for 12 months and will be assessed before a decision is taken on whether to roll out the framework nationally.

Justice Secretary Mr Grayling said: “It isn’t right that criminals who commit lower-level crime can be dealt with by little more than a warning.

“It’s time we put an end to this country’s cautions culture. I think every crime should have a consequence, and this change will deliver that.”

The overhaul of what are known as out-of-court disposals will mean cannabis warnings, community resolutions, penalty notices for disorder, simple cautions and the new two-tier framework would replace conditional cautions. The use of the simple caution, where an offender simply accepts the caution with no immediate consequences for doing so, will end.

Community Resolution

The new system will simplify the use of out-of-court disposals, so that the police normally have two remedies available to them.

For more minor offences, they will be able to impose a community resolution, which could include making reparation or paying financial compensation, or for offences that are more serious a suspended prosecution, where offenders will face court if they fail to comply with the conditions set.

It will allow the police to attach one or more conditions to the disposal, which must be reparative, rehabilitative and/or punitive in nature. It could see the offender receiving a punitive fine or attending a course designed to rehabilitate him or her and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

Mr Grayling added: “Our police officers do a brilliant job in keeping our streets safe. However, victims should not feel like offenders are walking away scot-free.

“I’m not prepared to allow the current situation to continue and that is why I am making these changes.

“This new approach will empower victims and give them a say in how criminals are dealt with, as well as making it easier for officers to deal with more minor offences.”

Chief Constable Lynne Owens, national policing lead on out-of-court disposals, said the reforms should reduce bureaucracy and help increase public understanding. She said: “The pilots seek to test a new approach which gives officers and staff the discretion to deal with cases appropriately.

“It will engage the victim in the process and require offenders to take responsibility for their actions.”

As with the current system, police officers will use their professional judgment to assess an offence, taking into account the wishes of the victim and the offender’s history, in order to reach an outcome which best meets the needs of the victim and of the public.

Magistrates’ Association

Richard Monkhouse, chairperson of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We have pressed hard for a simplification of cautions, so this pilot is welcome especially in empowering victims.

“However, we need to see more detail on the measurement of the pilot’s effectiveness because our members tell us there are existing challenges with local scrutiny panels in evaluating the current regime for out-of-court disposals.

“It’s also important that this doesn’t lead to an over-escalation and criminalisation of behaviour currently dealt with by informal community resolutions.”

In the 12 months to the end of March 2014, there were 391,171 out of court disposals, which comprised of 235,323 cautions, 77,933 cannabis warnings and 77,915 penalty notices for disorder.

Whilst many will welcome the new system of out of court disposals it appears to over complicate the current system.

There is concern that the police could attach overtly harsh or complicated conditions  to cautions for  offences  that simply do not justify the same.

Furthermore should the conditions for cautions not be met by offenders then this could lead to more cases proceeding to court potentially meaning  criminalistaion for an offence that does not really merit the same as well as implications for an already overstretched court system.

Do you have a question for the legal team at Olliers Solicitors? 

Their specialist criminal lawyers – including a specialist motor law department – are ready to answer your questions for FREE. All you have to do is email them in to our newsdesk here: newsdesk (at) mancunianmatters (dot) co (dot) uk

You can find more about Olliers Solicitors here.

Image courtesy of Pete Boyd, with thanks.

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