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Government launches review of out-of-court disposals

14 December 2009

The government is to review the use of out-of-court disposals such as cautions and on-the-spot fines following disquiet over reports that they were being used in cases were offenders should be formally charged.

Last month it was revealed that nearly 39,000 cautions were issued in 2008 for actual bodily harm, and 739 for grievous bodily harm.

At the time, Jack Straw said cautions remained a proportionate response to most low-level offences but acknowledged growing concern over the use of out-of-court disposals.

He rejected claims that cautions were used as a way of keeping prisoner numbers down, but said he was concerned there may be regional disparities and that he would launch a review of the rules on cautions.

The review, announced earlier today, will examine the reasons for variation between areas and whether criminal justice agencies are complying with guidance on the use of out-of-court disposals - including whether they are being inappropriately used for serious offences and whether persistent offenders are repeatedly receiving out-of-court disposals.

Straw said the review would also seek to determine the level of compliance and enforcement, and whether out-of-court disposals are effective in preventing re-offending, promoting public confidence and ensuring victim satisfaction.

The review will be led by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) and will report jointly to the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Attorney General’s Office.

In October, the Crown Prosecution Service launched a separate consultation – due to close on 11 January 2010 - to amend the prosecutors' code of conduct, including its own review of out-of-court disposals.

The proposal would introduce a new section 4.10 in the code, inviting prosecutors to consider whether prosecution is a proportionate response to the alleged offence in the circumstances.

The justice secretary repeated his support for the principle of out-of-court disposals for minor crime where no other action was previously available – "antisocial behaviour and low level offending that would previously have gone unpunished, and not for serious, persistent or violent offenders who should always be brought before a court".

"There will, of course, be cases in which the particular circumstances of the offence or offender mean that it is not in the public interest or the best interests of the victim to prosecute, and in these cases it is right that the police and the CPS have the flexibility to use cautions," he said. "However, I want to make it absolutely plain that anyone who commits a serious, violent or sexual offence can expect to find themselves in the dock."

Ministers will make a further statement to Parliament on the review of the use of out-of-court disposals in March 2010. The first phase of the review will consider the use of out-of-court disposals for both adults and youths.

According to government figures, the number of convictions was broadly stable in recent years despite the level of crime coming down but rose last year, with 724,000 convictions in 2007/08 for notifiable offences compared with 694,000 in 2006/07.

Simple cautions are administered by the police, while the CPS is responsible for administering conditional cautions.

Current DPP guidance on conditional cautions states that serious offences – including indictable-only offences, possession of offensive weapons such as knives and offences of actual bodily harm and those classified as hate crime – may not be dealt with by way of a conditional caution.

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