A police caution
is a formal alternative to prosecution in minor cases, administered by the police
The police is a personification of the state designated to put in practice the enforced law, protect property and reduce civil disorder in civilian matters. Their powers include the legitimized use of force...
and other law enforcement agencies in England and Wales, and in Hong Kong. It is commonly used to resolve cases where full prosecution is not seen as the most appropriate solution.
A police caution administered for the purpose of disposing of a criminal offence should not be confused with the caution used for the purpose of advising a suspect of their right to silence. A police caution (more properly known as a simple caution) is given by the police and is a non-statutory disposal for adult offenders.
The purposes of a formal police caution are:
- to deal quickly and simply with less serious offenders;
- to divert them from unnecessary appearance in the criminal courts; and
- to reduce the chances of their re-offending.
Circumstances for use
According to the Home Office
The Home Office is the United Kingdom government department responsible for immigration control, security, and order. As such it is responsible for the police, UK Border Agency, and the Security Service . It is also in charge of government policy on security-related issues such as drugs,...
, a police caution is a formal warning given to adults who admit they are guilty of first-time minor offences, such as vandalism or petty theft. According to the Magistrates' Association, a minor offence is one triable only summarily
A summary offence is a criminal act in some common law jurisdictions that can be proceeded with summarily, without the right to a jury trial and/or indictment .- United States :...
. Cautions are not given to young offenders (those aged 17 and under), who instead are given 'reprimand
A reprimand is a severe, formal or official reproof. Reprimanding takes in different forms in different legal systems, such as in UK law.- UK :...
s' and 'final warnings'.
According to the Home Office, a police caution does form a part of a person's criminal record. A caution may adversely affect both employment and travel prospects. A caution may be considered in court in the event of the offender being tried for a similar offence. A caution remains in police records along with photographs, fingerprints and any other samples taken at the time, although cautions (including reprimands and warnings) are covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 so will become spent immediately (apart from conditional cautions which will become spent after 3 months).
A caution is intended to act as a first official warning and to deter people from getting involved in crime.
Changes to cautions
As a result of changes made by the Criminal Justice Act 2003
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is a wide ranging measure introduced to modernise many areas of the criminal justice system in England and Wales and, to a lesser extent, in Scotland and Northern Ireland....
, cautions can be administered in two forms: as a simple caution
or as a conditional caution
, which has specific conditions attached that the offender must satisfy—attending a course aimed at targeting offending behaviour, for example. The Home Office has released guidance to the police and prosecutors on the use of the simple caution.
As of 2008, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 of the UK Parliament enables some criminal convictions to be ignored after a rehabilitation period. Its purpose is that people do not have a lifelong blot on their records because of a relatively minor offence in their past. The rehabilitation period is...
has been extended to cover police cautions, which are thereof considered to be expunged (spent) as soon as they are given.
Police and other enforcement agencies such as Local Authorities and Government departments have the power to administer a simple caution, while conditional cautions only be administered only by the police or a person authorised by a relevant prosecutor. However, the Crown Prosecution Service
The Crown Prosecution Service, or CPS, is a non-ministerial department of the Government of the United Kingdom responsible for public prosecutions of people charged with criminal offences in England and Wales. Its role is similar to that of the longer-established Crown Office in Scotland, and the...
(CPS) has a role to play in helping the police to ensure that the Home Office Guidelines on the Cautioning of Offenders are applied consistently and fairly.
CPS officers are instructed to refer to the police any case in which they consider a caution is the appropriate way of handling the offence. Where the CPS remains satisfied that a caution is appropriate but the police refuse to administer one, the CPS guidance recommends that the case is not accepted for the prosecution.
In order to safeguard the offender's interests, the following conditions must
be met before a caution can be administered:
- there must be evidence of guilt sufficient to give a realistic prospect of conviction;
- the offender must admit the offence;
- the offender must understand the significance of a caution and give informed consent to being cautioned.
Where the available evidence does not meet the standard normally required to bring a prosecution, a caution cannot be administered. A caution will not be appropriate where a person does not make a clear and reliable admission of the offence (for example if intent is denied or there are doubts about his mental health or intellectual capacity).
The Home Office recommends that cautions should never be used for the most serious offences (indictable-only offences). However, cautions are
given for indictable-only offences. The CPS suggests that this might be a result of the police issuing a caution for the offence that was reported or first suspected, rather than the offence that is revealed by the evidence at the end of the investigation. However, a caution must be administered and recorded for the correct offence, that is, for the offence revealed by the evidence. The CPS goes on to say that it will only be in rare circumstances that a caution will be a suitable disposition for an indictable offence.
Cautions can be administered in the case of an offence that is triable either-way or summarily.