Press release

Putting an end to 'soft option' cautions

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The government has unveiled plans to scrap the use of cautions in England and Wales, and replace them with a system of suspended prosecutions.

The aim is to ensure that there are more direct consequences in future for committing even minor crimes.

The new approach will be trialled in 3 police force areas over the next 12 months, and if successful, ministers aim to replicate it over the country.

The new approach means that offenders will be required to take 1 or more actions - such as paying a fine or making good on the damage they have done. If they fail to do so they will face being taken to court and prosecuted.

The new system will dramatically simplify the use of out-of-court disposals, so that the police normally have 2 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 more serious offences a suspended prosecution, where offenders will face court if they fail to comply with the conditions set. The use of the simple caution, where an offender simply accepts the caution with no immediate consequences for doing so, will end.

The system - which will be piloted for 1 year in the Staffordshire, West Yorkshire and Leicestershire police force areas - will allow the police to tackle offending in a much more effective way, which reduces the risk of offending. Those who choose not to comply will face the possibility of being prosecuted for the original offence. If the new system proves successful it could be rolled out nationally.

Justice Secretary Chris 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. Under the new system we are introducing, offenders will face prosecution if they fail to comply with the conditions set by the police, so that no one is allowed to get away with the soft option.

Our police officers do a brilliant job in keeping our streets safe. But 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.

National policing lead on out-of-court disposals, Chief Constable Lynne Owens said:

We recognise that the current out of court disposals framework has developed organically over a number of years and is complex as a result. Any reform must aim to simplify it in order to assist public understanding and reduce bureaucracy. 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.

We will be working closely with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and other stakeholders over the next 12 months to fully understand the impact of these changes and build an appropriate evidence base. We will then, depending on the outcome, look to make a sensible recommendation regarding wider roll out.

I am grateful to my colleagues in West Yorkshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire for agreeing to take part in this pilot. It has been a significant commitment in terms of training their workforce in the new approach and amending their existing processes to accommodate it. I look forward to working with them to get a clear understanding of whether this approach really delivers for the public they serve.

The use of out-of-court disposals overall has decreased in recent years. In the 12 months to the end of March 2014, there were 391,171 given, which comprised of 235,323 cautions, 77,933 cannabis warnings and 77,915 penalty notices for disorder. This compares to 522,133 out-of-court disposals given in the 12 months to the end of March 2010.

Instead of the existing 6 disposals (conditional caution, simple caution, penalty notice for disorder, cannabis and khat warning and community resolution) the new framework will comprise of:

  • a new statutory community resolution - aimed at first-time offenders, this will be used to resolve minor offences through an agreement with the offender. It will empower victims, giving them a say in how they want the offender to be dealt with. It could see an offender offering a verbal or written apology to the victim, making reparation (which can include fixing material damages) or paying financial compensation

  • a suspended prosecution - designed to tackle more serious offending, it will allow the police to attach 1 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

Under this new two-tier framework, offenders would have to take steps to comply with the disposal, rather than just accepting a warning, which is often the case with the current system. If they fail to comply, they will risk being prosecuted for the original offence. The pilots will operate for 12 months and will be assessed before a decision is taken on whether to roll out the framework nationally.

As with the current system, police officers will use their professional judgement 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.

These changes follow a wide-ranging consultation held by the MOJ last year, which found that 71% of those who responded called for the out-of-court disposals framework to be simplified. It also found that less than a quarter of respondents (23%) felt the current system deterred offending, and only 16% felt that the public was able to hold the police accountable for the way out-of-court disposals are used.

Notes to editors

  • A description of all current out-of-court disposals.
  • The new ‘community remedy’, which came into force this month, will work alongside the two disposals in that it will allow victims a say in the actions an offender should be required to complete as part of the disposals.
  • ‘Fixed penalty notices’ are not in scope of these changes after they were found to work effectively for the limited circumstances they can be used, and therefore will be retained.
  • For further information please call the MOJ Press office on 02033 343536. Follow us on twitter @MoJPress.