Decisions on whether to disclose information on a person’s criminal record are important in protecting children and vulnerable adults but the Department of Justice and NIACRO both contend that the current system is too arbitrary.
Criminal records checks are undertaken by Access NI – a dedicated criminal history disclosure service – and come in three forms:
• basic (unspent convictions);
• standard (all convictions and relevant cautions); and
• enhanced (includes any other relevant material provided by police).
In March 2011, Justice Minister David Ford commissioned a review of criminal records policy from Sunita Mason, the UK Government’s independent adviser in this area. Her first review report, published in August of that year, covered the disclosure of criminal records information while the second report, published in June 2012, looked at how that information is managed.
Following the first review, the department plans to impose penalties and sanctions where employers knowingly make unlawful criminal record check applications. Children aged under 16 would be exempted from checks unless these are necessary for fostering, adoption and similar placements. It also supports a statutory code of practice and an independent representations process to deal with cases where individuals wish to dispute police information or disclosed information.
Accepted recommendations from the second review included the disclosure of information from AccessNI on cautions, informed warnings and diversionary youth conferences, and the introduction of a system to filter out old and minor convictions.
The consultation found a consensus on retaining criminal record information for 100 years – a policy adopted by the department from last January. The other accepted proposals are being taken forward in the current Justice Bill. These include a clause which would bring Northern Ireland under the remit of England and Wales’ independent monitor of police disclosure information.
The role of independent monitor is held by a number of members of staff in the Home Office’s Safeguarding and Public Protection Unit. It is expected that the change will improve consistency in the release of information across police forces and would avoid the costs of setting up a local body.
One of the most significant proposals on criminal records is NIACRO’s suggestion to allow minor childhood offences to be removed. This is based a recommendation made in the 2011 review of the youth justice system and would cover offences which occurred between the ages of 10 and 18.
NIACRO Chief Executive Olwen Lyner has stated that the current policy can result in a people being denied employment, education, training and travel opportunities and claimed that it can lead to reoffending “as avenues to move on in life and build a stable career are closed off.”