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)

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For more information on:

  • Exceptions
  • Other issues
  • Disclosure and Barring Service
  • Assessing the relevance of criminal records