Blog, Policy briefing | 04 May 2022

More than a warning: Why cautions are more serious than you might think

It was Kaitlyn’s first and only fight. She had recently had a baby when a friend who had assaulted her during the pregnancy showed up out of the blue. That friend antagonised Kaitlyn and didn’t allow her to leave the room. When Kaitlyn pushed past them, it turned into a fight and the police were called.

A few hours later, Kaitlyn was at the police station being advised by an officer to accept a caution to avoid the case going to court. Thinking of her baby at home, Kaitlyn was just relieved that social services wouldn’t be involved and that she could return home straight away. ‘He said to me, “A caution won’t affect you in any shape or form, you can go on and live your life.”

I thought ok, a caution just seems like a warning, you know?


But that was far from the end of it. In fact, despite the reassurances of police officers, a caution appears on a standard or enhanced criminal record check and can have serious consequences.

Unfortunately, Kaitlyn’s story is not uncommon. Many women accept a caution believing that it’s just a slap on the wrist. Television presenter Melanie Sykes recently raised awareness of the issue by speaking out about her experience accepting a caution.

It is often the case that women are not warned about the long-term implications of accepting a caution. Working Chance speaks to a lot of women who didn’t realise at the time that a caution would appear on their criminal record. It is often women’s first contact with the criminal justice system, and they follow the advice of the police to accept a caution to avoid going to court. When it comes to women, cautions very often arise from domestic or family disputes in which women are survivors of abuse.

For instance, Working Chance recently supported a woman who was in an abusive and coercive relationship when she snapped and threw a cup at her partner. She was subsequently arrested and ended up with a caution, while her husband did not.

In Kaitlyn’s case, her caution prevented her from re-entering the teaching profession. She had to apply to agency after agency before finding one that would give her a chance. Since teaching positions require an enhanced DBS check, Kaitlyn will have to disclose her caution for years.

‘It seems like a long punishment for something that only happened once,’ she said. ‘The police officer should have told me what a caution is and explained the repercussions.’

It seems a long punishment for something that only happened once. The police officer should have told me what a caution is and explained the repercussions.


Cautions: the policy context

The rules determining what shows up on a standard or enhanced DBS check – which are needed for jobs like teaching, nursing and other work involving children or vulnerable adults – are complex and don’t take individual circumstances into account. The details of what happened when Kaitlyn received her caution, and the efforts she’s made since to build a better life for herself and her child, will never be known by an employer who writes her off because of what’s on her DBS certificate. The only way to change these rules is by changing the law.

In November 2020, following a supreme court case and years of campaigning by organisations and individuals, some rules around filtering changed and more recently and more recently, there have been changes to spent periods, meaning some people won’t have to disclose their conviction for extended periods of time.

But as Kaitlyn’s story shows, there is still more to do. FOI requests made by the FairChecks campaign found that in the year since the 2020 changes took effect, more than 30,000 standard and enhanced checks revealed cautions. The true number of people affected by the lasting impact of a caution will be much higher; we can’t know how many people are put off applying for jobs in the first place, because they know they’ll have to disclose a mistake they made years ago.

Despite the progress in 2020, some of the government’s recent policy decisions appear to be making things worse when it comes to cautions. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill – currently in its final stages – is set to introduce a new type of caution which will be disclosed on basic checks for three months; the kind that any employer can do, for any job. This will hold people back at a crucial time, when the ability to gain secure employment could make the difference between someone getting their life back on track, or being dragged into further offending. The Nationality and Borders bill, which has been widely criticised by human rights groups, tightens the rules and will allow cautions to be considered in immigration cases.

The FairChecks movement, led by charities Unlock and Transform Justice, is working to raise awareness of our broken and unfair criminal records system – and change it. We’re calling for an end to the automatic disclosure of cautions on criminal record checks, to give people a fair chance at a fresh start. The only way to change the law is to convince politicians that the public believes in fairness. If you believe that one mistake shouldn’t define someone for life, add your voice today.

Unlock is an independent advocacy charity for anyone experiencing prejudice, stigma and discrimination because of a criminal record. Find information and advice at