Criminal records: an overview

What is a criminal record?

A criminal record is a list of crimes of which someone has been convicted in a magistrates’ court or the Crown Court. The information is held on the Police National Computer (PNC). Local police forces may also keep their own records.

What goes on a criminal record?

Technically, any criminal offence an individual is convicted of in a court forms part of their criminal record. In practice, however, many motoring offences – eg, speeding, careless driving, and failing to provide driver details – do not appear on a criminal record.

Although there are some exceptions, generally only criminal offences which carry a prison sentence go on a criminal record, as set out in the ss 27 and 118 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000.

If an individual accepts a caution as an alternative to prosecution, this forms a part of their criminal record and can be used as evidence of bad character if they are prosecuted for another crime. Unless a conviction is a certainty, therefore, a caution should not be accepted.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA 1974) is aimed at helping people who have lived on the right side of the law since being convicted of a criminal offence.

Under ROA 1974, all cautions and convictions (except those resulting in prison sentences of more than 30 months) are regarded as ‘spent’ after a certain amount of time and the offender is regarded as rehabilitated. The time it takes for a caution/conviction to become spent will depend on the sentence passed. Those with spent convictions are treated as if s/he has never committed an offence and, they are not required to declare their caution(s) or conviction(s), for example, when applying for employment or insurance.

People with multiple convictions, especially serious conviction may not benefit from ROA 1974 unless the convictions are very old.

Spent and unspent convictions

If a person has been convicted of an offence for which a sentence of more than 30 months was imposed (regardless of how much time they actually spent in prison) their conviction can never be spent. As it remains an unspent conviction, this person must always disclose their conviction when asked about their criminal record.

Certain convictions are deemed ‘spent’ under ROA 1974 after certain periods of time (see the table below). This is known as the ‘rehabilitation period’ – the period is halved where the offender was under 18 at the point they were convicted.

Rehabilitation period for criminal convictions
Sentence/disposal Rehabilitation period for adults over 18 Rehabilitation period for under 18s
Imprisonment or detention in a young offender institution for more than 30 months Never spent Never spent
Imprisonment or detention in a young offender institution over 6 months but not exceeding 30 months 10 years 5 years
Imprisonment up to 6 months 7 years 3½ years
Fine 5 years 2½ years
Community sentence 5 years 2½ years
Conditional discharge The period of the order, or a minimum of 12 months (whichever is longer) The period of the order, or a minimum of 12 months (whichever is longer)
Compensation order On the discharge of the order On the discharge of the order
Supervision order N/A The period of the order, or a minimum of 12 months (whichever is longer)
Bind over The period of the order, or a minimum of 12 months (whichever is longer) The period of the order, or a minimum of 12 months (whichever is longer)
Attendance centre order A period ending one year after the order expires A period ending one year after the order expires
Hospital order Five years, or a period ending 2 years after the order expires (whichever is longer) Five years, or a period ending 2 years after the order expires (whichever is longer)



When applying for the following jobs, spent convictions must still be disclosed: certain roles in the financial services sector, law enforcement, the prison service, the health service, private security, etc. Also, roles involving work with children, the elderly, and disabled. These exceptions are listed in the legislation Exceptions Order to ROA 1974.

Other issues

  • A new conviction will have no bearing upon the rehabilitation period of an unspent conviction unless it is a more serious offence, in which case the unspent conviction will only become spent once the new conviction is spent if later than it otherwise would have become spent.
  • A conviction incapable of becoming spent also renders earlier unspent convictions incapable of becoming spent.
  • Two plus prison sentences handed down simultaneously by a court: if sentences concurrent, then treated separately with individual rehabilitation periods. However, if consecutive, then single term with one rehabilitation period.
  • If a person is dismissed as a result of a spent conviction, they can bring a claim for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.

Disclosure and Barring Service

The Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority) is responsible for processing requests for criminal records checks retained on the PNC (DBS checks) from employers and licensing bodies.

Standard and enhanced DBS certificates will include details of convictions and cautions (which include youth cautions, reprimands and warnings) recorded on the PNC. Some PNC information relating to cautions and convictions will be ‘filtered’ and will not appear on the certificate. Click here to find out when a conviction or caution will be filtered.

The DBS also decides whether a person should be placed on or removed from a barred list. If someone is placed on a barred list, they are prohibited from working in specified sectors.

Assessing the relevance of criminal records

Determining the suitability of a person with a criminal record for a position (both paid and unpaid) will vary, depending on the nature of the post and the detail of circumstances of the conviction. Unfortunately this is not an exact science. Assessing an individual’s skills, experiences, and conviction circumstances should be weighed against the risk assessment criteria for the post.

It is recommended that an employer should consider the following when deciding on the relevance of offences to particular posts:

  • Does it involve one-to-one contact with children and/or vulnerable groups as employees, customers, and clients?
  • What level of supervision will the individual receive?
  • Does the post involve direct contact with the general public?
  • Does the post involve direct responsibility for finance or items of value?
  • Will the nature of the post present opportunities for the individual to re-offend in the place on employment (bearing in mind that anyone, convicted or not, can commit a crime)?

The answers to these questions should help an employer to determine the relevance of any convictions to specific posts. For example, paedophilia or child pornography offences will most certainly disqualify a person from working with children; some violent offences would be relevant to positions involving unsupervised contact with the general public; fraud should be considered in relation to financial positions; and theft should be considered in warehouse jobs.

Other Important Information

*No Win No Fee

  • Although all our cases are handled on a no win no fee basis, other costs could be payable upon solicitors request. These will be fully explained to you before you proceed. Most customers will pay 25% (including VAT) of the compensation they are awarded to their law firm, although this may vary based on individual circumstances. Your solicitor may arrange for insurance to be in place for you to make sure your claim is risk free. Termination fees based on time spent may apply, or in situations such as: lack of cooperation or deliberately misleading our solicitors, or failing to go to any medical or expert examination, or court hearing.
  • *Criminal Injury Claims

  • If you want to make a claim for a criminal injury, you are not required to use the services of a claims management company to pursue the claim. You can submit your claim for free on your own behalf, directly to the Criminal Injury Compensation Authority (England, Wales, and Scotland) or the Criminal Injury Compensation Scheme (Northern Ireland).
About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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