Police / Police cautions

What is a police caution?

What does accepting a police caution mean? What is a conditional caution? Will a caution show up on your criminal record?

Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page.

What’s the difference between a simple caution and a conditional caution?

Both simple and conditional cautions are admissions of guilt. If the police have enough evidence to convict you and you admit to the crime, they may offer you a caution. If you accept it, then you are agreeing that you are guilty.

Cautions are also known as ‘out of court disposals’ – they are a way of dealing with an offence without the need for a prosecution in court. This also means that you won’t get the chance to defend yourself in court if you accept a caution.

A caution is not technically the same as a conviction, but it comes with similar consequences. While you will not receive a prison sentence, cautions do go on your criminal record and conditional cautions may result in a fine and/or require you to follow certain rules.

Simple and conditional cautions can’t be given to anyone under the age of 18. Anyone under the age of 18 may be offered a youth caution or youth conditional caution instead. Youth cautions involve the Youth Offending Team during the process.

Simple cautions

Simple cautions are the more common of the two types of caution.

Accepting a simple caution means that you have admitted to committing the crime in question. By accepting it, you won’t face a prison sentence or a fine in the moment. However, the caution does go on your criminal record.

The rules around whether cautions appear on DBS checks are a little complicated. Unlock is a charity which provides great information on this topic. In short, a simple caution won’t always turn up on basic DBS checks (the most common ones), as they’re instantly “spent”. However, they might show up on more in-depth (‘enhanced’) DBS checks for a few years.

However, there are some situations in which a simple caution may still come up. This includes if you:

  • received the caution for certain serious crimes,
  • are applying for certain jobs which involve a high level of responsibility,
  • need to show your criminal record to travel to certain countries, or
  • end up in court again and they refer back to your record.

Cautions for certain sexual offences will also require the individual’s name to be added to the Sex Offender’s Register.

If you accept a caution now, the police can still re-open the case later if they find out something new which shows that the offence was more serious than they thought. The victim of the crime can also still bring a civil claim (e.g. sue for compensation) or a private prosecution for what happened.

Conditional cautions

The above is also true for conditional cautions, with two main differences.

Firstly, conditional cautions come with conditions attached which the individual has to comply with. If they break these conditions, then the individual can be charged with the original crime.

The conditions should be based on:

  • rehabilitation (e.g. addiction support);
  • reparation (e.g. apologising or paying for repairs to a victim); or
  • punishment (payment of a fine).

The conditions also need to be:

  • appropriate (to changing the offender’s behaviour);
  • proportionate (to the crime committed); and
  • achievable (possible for the offender to fulfil in a reasonable timeframe).

The second difference is that a conditional caution doesn’t become “spent” until three months after it is issued (or until the conditions end, if that’s shorter than 3 months). In that time, they are “unspent” and still turn up on even basic DBS checks (e.g. when applying for most jobs).

When might I be given a simple caution?

You can only be given a caution when the police have enough evidence to take you to court if they wanted to and you have already clearly and explicitly admitted to the crime. They should not use a caution as a way to pressure you into admitting to anything. If they do, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

A simple caution could technically be given for any crime. However, they are generally considered appropriate for low-level offending and first-time offenders. The police can only offer them for “summary only” or “either way” offences. These tend to be the less serious offences, which carry no – or only short – prison sentences.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must decide whether to offer a caution for an “indictable-only” offence. These are the serious offences, which tend to come with a longer potential prison sentence.

The police do not have to offer a caution – whether they do is their decision. They could choose to pass your case to the CPS who will decide whether to prosecute you (i.e. to take you to court). There are certain factors which make it more likely that they pass it to the CPS rather than offering a simple caution. These include:

  • when the crime involves domestic violence/abuse, stalking or harassment;
  • when you were on bail or subject to a court order at the time;
  • when you had a previous criminal history (including previous cautions); or
  • when you were a serving prisoner or subject to prison recall.

If you are offered a caution, you do have the right to refuse it. In that case, the police may decide to pass it to the CPS instead, and you may be taken to court. This is a more stressful and time-consuming process, but it does give you the opportunity to defend yourself in court. Therefore, if you know that you did not commit the crime they’re accusing you of, it may be better to go to court and defend yourself rather than accept a caution.

You should speak to a criminal defence solicitor before accepting or refusing any caution. You have the right to free legal advice before you choose.

When might I be given a conditional caution?

The circumstances around being given a conditional caution are the same as those for a simple caution, as described above.

However, a conditional caution may be considered instead of a simple caution if the police think conditions may:

  • repay the victim or community;
  • help to prevent future offending behaviour;
  • remove the person from the area; or
  • provide an appropriate fine.

These conditions will have a timeframe. This timeframe can be up to 16 weeks in most cases, and up to 20 weeks in more serious cases. Most fines can be up to £50; more serious fines can be up to £100; the most serious can be up to £150. Any payments to repay the victim will be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the amount required must be proportionate to the crime and possible for the individual to pay. If a fine or payment is disproportionate, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

As part of the process, the police should consider any views expressed by the victim of a crime, any considerations of the wider community/neighbourhood and the likely effects of the conditions.

Foreign offender conditions

There can be an additional form of condition which can be given if the individual is a “relevant foreign offender” (this is someone who has no leave to enter or to remain in the UK). In these cases, foreign offenders can be given conditions which require them to leave the UK and/or not to return to the UK for a period of time. These conditions may include:

  • regularly reporting to an immigration office, reporting centre, police station or other similar place;
  • getting a valid national travel document; or
  • complying with an instruction from an immigration officer.

These “foreign offender” conditions cannot be given if the individual has made an asylum or human rights claim to remain in the UK and that claim is still being decided. If an asylum or human rights claim was rejected but an appeal was made, then these “foreign offender” conditions cannot be given if this appeal is still being decided.

What happens when I’m given a simple caution?

A caution should be offered in a police station, court building or other official setting. Importantly, it should not be offered in the street, your home or any other unofficial setting. The police should only break this rule if there are exceptional circumstances. For example, if you’re physically unable to attend the police station, they may offer you the caution where you are.

You should only be offered a caution after you have already clearly admitted to a crime. This admission is likely to have been made in a formal police interview or in a signed written statement. If you admitted to a crime without an interview, the police must write down what you said and ask you to sign it. Either way, there should be a clear record of an admission. If the admission was unclear, or if you also said you had a defence (e.g. that the act was committed in self-defence), then the police shouldn’t offer you a caution. If they do, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

You have the right to legal advice before accepting a caution. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can ask the police to get a free duty solicitor for you. It is always worth speaking to a solicitor before accepting a caution. They can, for example, request that you are released on bail while you consider your decision whether or not to accept a caution. You and your lawyer should be given access to the evidence against you before you make a decision. If you’re denied access to a lawyer or the evidence against you, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

The police must make you aware of how the caution will impact you before they offer you a simple caution. If they don’t, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

  • you do not have to accept the caution
  • you have the right to legal advice
  • this caution is an admission of guilt
  • this will be included on your criminal record
  • this record can be referred to in future legal proceedings and future police investigations
  • this record may impact your employment when applying for jobs which involve working with children, vulnerable adults, judicial positions, firearms, and certain other responsible positions
  • this record may prevent you from travelling to certain countries
  • cautions in relation to certain sexual offences will still result in being put on the sex offenders register for two years
  • if new details come to light later which indicate that the offences committed were more serious (or different) than they’d thought, the CPS can still bring a prosecution even if you accepted the caution
  • a victim of the crime can still bring their own civil claim (e.g. sue the offender for compensation) or private prosecution

If you do agree to accept the caution, you will be given a “simple caution form”. This lays out the implications of the caution again and confirms that you have already previously admitted to the crime. It will also contain details of the offence and your identifying details (e.g. name, address and occupation).

You have officially accepted the caution when you sign this form. You should then return the original to the police, and you should be given a copy to keep.

What happens when I’m given a conditional caution?

The process of giving a conditional caution are similar to those for a simple caution, as described above. Although, the police must also make you aware of the conditions and include these on the written form, before you agree to accept. They should also make clear how they intend to check whether you’re complying with the conditions, and the potential consequences of breaching these conditions.

If you breach your conditions without a reasonable excuse, the police can cancel the caution and start criminal proceedings instead. However, the caution and breach will remain on your record.

Can I refuse a caution?

You are free and entitled to refuse a caution. If you refuse, the police will then need to choose whether to pass your case to the CPS (who will decide whether to prosecute you) or to let you go.

It is important to remember that the police should only offer you a caution if they believe that they have enough evidence to convict you in court and you have already admitted to the crime. However, you should still talk to your criminal defence solicitor before you choose to accept a caution. If the police haven’t fulfilled these requirements, you may be able to challenge the caution later.

You may choose to refuse a caution if you don’t believe that the police have sufficient evidence. You and your lawyer have the right to review the evidence against you before you choose whether to accept or refuse the caution.

You may also choose to refuse a caution if you believe that there are points which you want to bring up in court. For example, if you believe that you have mitigating circumstances, your lawyer may advise you to bring these up in court. Furthermore, if you have already told the police that you have a defence to the offence (e.g. it was committed in self-defence), then you should not have been offered a caution. If you have, you may be able to challenge this caution later.

Can I challenge a caution afterwards?

If you believe that the way you were offered a caution was incorrect, you can challenge this in a number of ways:

  1. A police complaint: this can be made to the police force that offered the caution. If the police force investigating the complaint agrees that the caution was incorrect, they can choose to cancel it. See our page on making a police complaint for more information on how to do this. You have 12 months from the date of the caution being issued to bring a complaint.
  2. Judicial review: this is a court process which asks the court to review the police’s decision to offer the caution. If they agree that the decision was incorrectly made, they can cancel the caution. See our page on judicial reviews for more information about this process. It is important to note that you must apply for a judicial review as soon as possible, and in any event, no later than 3 months from the date of the caution being issued. Unless there is an urgency (e.g. the 3 month deadline is approaching), you should only apply for a judicial review after you have explored other ways of resolving the issue, i.e. by making a police complaint.
  3. Application for expungement: You can apply to have your caution removed (‘expunged’) from your criminal record, by applying to the ACRO Criminal Records Office’s Deletion Unit.

If you would like to challenge a police caution, you should speak to a lawyer with expertise in public law and/or claims against the police  who will be able to advise you.

There are 5 common grounds which have resulted in cautions being cancelled. If any of these apply to your situation, you should raise it with a lawyer:

  1. You never admitted to the crime before the caution was offered.
  2. You were pressured into admitting to the crime by the offer of the caution (e.g. if the police officers said something like “just admit to the crime, and we’ll make sure we only give you a caution”).
  3. The offence is so minor that the CPS wouldn’t normally go to court over it.
  4. The police didn’t fully explain the implications of the caution, and so you didn’t fully understand what you were agreeing to.
  5. The police didn’t provide your lawyer with all of the necessary evidence, so you didn’t fully understand what you were agreeing to.

For more information about how to find a lawyer, see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page.

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