The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (c.53) of the UK Parliament enables some criminalconvictions to be ignored after a rehabilitation period. Its purpose is that people do not have a lifelong blot on their records because of a relatively minor offence in their past. The rehabilitation period is automatically determined by the sentence. After this period, if there has been no further conviction the conviction is “spent” and, with certain exceptions, need not be disclosed by the ex-offender in any context such as when applying for a job, obtaining insurance, or in civil proceedings. A conviction for the purposes of the ROA includes a conviction issued outside Great Britain (see s1(4) of the 1974 Act) and therefore foreign convictions are eligible to receive the protection of the ROA.
Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (section 139), the Act as it applies in England and Wales was updated to provide new rehabilitation periods – with most convictions becoming spent in a shorter amount of time. For adults, the rehabilitation period is one year for community orders, two years for custodial sentences of six months or less, four years for custodial sentences of over six months and up to and including 30 months, and seven years for custodial sentences of over 30 months and up to and including 48 months. Custodial sentences of over four years will never become spent and must continue to be disclosed when necessary. Under the 2012 Act, the rehabilitation period starts on the date of conviction in the case of fines, but for custodial sentences it starts after the offender has completed the sentence (including time on licence) and for community orders it starts when the order ceases to have effect. For example, an offender who received a two-year prison sentence will see the conviction spent six years from date of conviction (two year sentence plus four year rehabilitation period). For offenders who are under the age of 18 when convicted, the rehabilitation period is half that of an adult.
A conviction that is spent under British law may not be so considered elsewhere. For example, criminal convictions must be disclosed when applying to enter the United States; spent convictions are not excluded for US immigration purposes under US law.
The Act makes it an offence for anyone with access to criminal records to disclose spent convictions unless authorised to do so. The Act makes it a more serious offence to obtain such information by means of fraud, dishonesty or bribery.
Certain professions and employments are exempt from the Act so that individuals are not allowed to withhold details of previous convictions in relation to their job when applying for positions in similar fields. These professions include:
- Those working with children and other vulnerable groups, such as teachers and social workers
- Those working in professions associated with the justice system, such as solicitor or barrister, police, court clerk, probation officer, prison officer and traffic warden
- Doctors, dentists, pharmaceutical chemists, registered pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, nurses or paramedics
- Veterinary surgeons
- Managers of unit trusts
- Anyone applying to work as an officer of the Crown
- Employees of the RSPCA or SSPCA whose duties extend to the humane killing of animals
- Any employment or other work normally carried out in bail hostels or probation hostels
- Certain officials and employees from government and public authorities with access to sensitive or personal information or official databases about children or vulnerable adults
- Any office or employment concerned with providing health services which would normally enable access to recipients of those health services
- Officers and other persons who execute various court orders
- Anyone who as part of their occupation occupies premises where explosives are kept under a police certificate
- Contractors who carry out various kinds of work in tribunal and court buildings
- Certain company directorships, such as those for banks, building societies and insurance companies
- Certain civil service positions are excluded from the Act, such as employment with the Civil Aviation Authority and the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
- Taxi drivers and other transport workers.
- Butlers and other domestic staff
Aside from these trades and professions, the law also exempts organisations if the question is asked:
- By or on behalf of The Football Association, The Football League or Premier League to assess someone’s suitability to work as, or supervise or manage, a steward at football matches.
- By the Financial Conduct Authority, Prudential Regulation Authority and certain other bodies involved in finance, when asked to assess the suitability of a person to hold a particular status in the financial and monetary sectors.
- To assess a person’s suitability to adopt children, or a particular child, or a question about anyone over the age of 18 living with such a person.
However, disclosure of a criminal conviction where necessary, i.e. not covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, or after the 2014 change, which introduced protected convictions, does not automatically bar a particular individual from employment in a given profession. For instance, notable cases include Gary Bell, a former fraudster turned high-profile successful barrister and Queen’s Counsel; and Selwyn Strachan, who was convicted of murder in Grenada and served a sentence of 40 years. Similar cases can also be found in both education, medicine, domestic employment, as well as other profession. In short, each case is determined on its own merits even where disclosure is necessary because the conviction either cannot become spent or is exempt from the protections of the Act.