It is widely thought that once a conviction is ‘spent’, it is erased from ‘the system’ and simply ceases to exist. Regrettably for those who may have a youthful indiscretion or two on their record, this is not so, as is illustrated by a recent case.
The Information Commissioner sought to require Humberside police to remove from its records details of the convictions of five people. The convictions were for minor offences – one example being a conviction for theft by a sixteen-year-old that led to a fine of £15. In each case the person convicted had not been in trouble with the law subsequently.
The convictions were ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA), which provides that where the punishment is a fine, a conviction is spent after 5 years (2½ years where the offence was committed by a person under 18 years of age) and in the case of a conditional discharge, at the end of the period of the condition. The ROA provides that spent offences are to be treated for some purposes as if they never occurred.
The Information Commissioner’s application to delete the records was opposed by the police, who were concerned that acceding to the demand would mean that more than a million similar records of criminal offences would have to be expunged from their files. Their argument was that the use made of the records was appropriate – in data protection terms ‘adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purposes for which they are collected’. In the view of the police, the ‘purposes’ included the provision of criminal intelligence to other bodies, in particular the need to provide full records for disclosure to the Crown Prosecution Service when required.
The Court of Appeal held that the value of the information to the police was sufficient reason for its retention. Whilst the Information Commissioner had the right to supervise this, he did not have the right to say for how long the data should be retained or indeed to dictate the specific purposes for which it could be used.
Since police policy is to retain such information for 100 years, few people will live to see a youthful conviction removed from the criminal records system.