Sue Johnson, who represents Wilbury Ward on Letchworth Town Council, reports on how she successfully pressurised Hertfordshire police to investigate and subsequently quash a Caution given to a young Letchworth girl. She highlights the invaluable role an elected councillor can play in fighting injustice.
FOR THE past eighteen months it’s been possible to get a criminal record for life without ever being tried in a court of law or formally convicted of any crime. How? By accepting a police caution.
Most people believe, reasonably, that a caution is precisely that: a warning that being in a similar situation in the future might have severe repercussions.
But they are wrong. Because since October 2009, all police cautions remain on record for 99 years – and will be disclosed to prospective employers on Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks.
This means that if you have one you may be unable to get a job working in education, health or care settings – or even helping out at your child’s school. You may also be denied credit and detained at airports.
In English criminal courts, the prosecution must prove guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But cautions can be issued on the subjective judgement of individual police officers in the absence of any legal advice or representation for recipients.
They are issued at the time of arrest, possibly without a sufficient review of the evidence or any supporting information, and often after the subject has been held for a considerable time in the cells.
A common complaint is that Cautions or ‘out of court disposals’ as they are called put the police in the position of judge and jury, opening the door for decisions resulting from poor judgement or abuse of the system.
In law, before every decision to charge, whether or not the case is to be heard in Court, there are conditions which must be met: There must be enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction in court; an admission of guilt; a clear understanding of the significance of a caution; and informed consent.
Once applied, because a Caution amounts to an admission of guilt, it can be cited as a criminal record at any time in the future.
But I can confirm from my own experience that these conditions are not always applied, resulting in people’s lives being unjustly blighted. And to make matters worse, such cautions will only be removed in exceptional circumstances, including unlawful arrest or where there is insufficient evidence that the alleged offence was actually committed.
This year I have been involved in two such cases. One is still ongoing, and in the other the caution was successfully removed. In that case, I acted on behalf of a young Letchworth woman who was given a caution for ‘battery’ shortly after her eighteenth birthday. Her ‘crime’ was that, after being stalked and harassed by an ex-boyfriend, she had physically pushed him away. He had not fallen, or been bruised or hurt in any way. There was absolutely no physical evidence to support his allegation.
But this young woman was later stopped in her car, taken to a local police station, charged and detained in a police cell for six hours.
At three o’clock in the morning, frightened and cold, she was offered a formal caution, and told that if she refuse she would be taken to court. This despite the complete absence of any evidence other than the young man’s word that she had committed the alleged offence.
She believed there was nothing she could do or say in her own defence. It was the middle of the night, she was in the middle of her A-levels, and she just wanted to go home.
Protesting her innocence, she accepted the caution – not as an admission of guilt which this is regarded in law, but as an acceptance of punishment, which although undeserved she could not see how she could avoid.
Getting it removed was not easy. First I had to battle with police at the most senior level in order to get them to instigate an investigation. It finally took the active support of the Parliamentary Liaison Officer and Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) before a formal investigation was ordered.
Once in place, it is to the credit of Hertfordshire Police that there was a very thorough examination of the circumstances in which this caution had been applied. Background information was requested and explored, all parties were re interviewed and taped information was re examined. As a result the caution was removed on the grounds that no offence had been committed.
This young woman is now a young professional qualified to enter the medical field – but she may never have been able to get a job if this caution had remained in place.
I believe that my success in getting justice was entirely down to my being a town councillor. As plain Sue Johnson, I would likely have been ignored. As Councillor Sue Johnson I got responses, even from the office of the Home Secretary.
My role as councillor opened doors. My letters received swift responses. My phone calls were returned. People talked to me. And, most importantly, they listened.
For me, this is what being a town councillor is all about. Supporting townspeople when they need help, and providing access to what is the first tier of government – the town council.