The Court of Appeal's decision on Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks is an important victory for human rights and common sense. For too long now the disproportionate and overzealous current system has blighted the lives of hardworking people by preventing them from doing jobs they may be very well-qualified to do. The government cannot let this continue any longer.
Today's case, in which Liberty intervened, focused on a 21-year-old man referred to as 'T'. When he was just 11, he was given two warnings by Manchester Police in relation to two stolen bikes. The information was then disclosed, many years later, on two occasions - firstly when he applied for a part-time job at his local football club, aged 17, and then again when he sought a place on a sports studies course at university.
Regrettably, with millions of CRB checks carried out every year and with highly personal and irrelevant data readily being shared, T's experience was far from unique. Such disclosure is said to be aimed at protecting children and vulnerable adults, which is of course crucial. But too often the current statutory regime has proved disproportionate, with information revealed regardless of the seriousness of an offence, its relevance to the position or how long ago it occurred.
Hopefully today's ruling will change all that. The Court of Appeal announced that the current system is incompatible with the right to a private life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. It also recognised that the disclosure of historic information can often lead to people being excluded from employment. The judges decided that both the primary legislation in this area, the Police Act 1997, and the relevant secondary legislation, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975, are incompatible with human rights law. They have said their judgment won't take effect pending an appeal to the Supreme Court, so the government will have to appeal within 28 days or introduce new legislation within that time, otherwise the system will collapse altogether.
Disappointingly the government has already indicated that it will appeal; citing a desire not to compromise the protection of children and vulnerable groups. But today's judgment doesn't require any compromise of this kind. It isn't about violent criminals or sex offenders. It's not about serious crime. The problem with the current blanket system is that it releases minor, potentially misleading information which prevents people from securing jobs; ruining their lives. Ministers must recognise as much and do something about it.
It's not yet clear whether the Supreme Court will give the government permission to appeal. If it does, the process could take months and the system could remain as it stands in the meantime. But the government will have to prepare new legislation anyway - in case the Supreme Court says no. It's difficult to feel much sympathy for ministers. Not only did a government review conclude over a year ago that a filtering system should be introduced. This case started back in August 2011, so ministers have had plenty of time to prepare for the possibility they might lose.
Any new system should be much more nuanced. It should have regard to factors such as the seriousness of the offence; the person's age at the time of caution or conviction; the type of sentence; how long ago the offence was committed; whether the individual has reoffended and the nature of the job applied for. A more proportionate process is the only way of ensuring that highly sensitive and irrelevant personal data is no longer disclosed. As the law stands, some people's chances of employment and, at a time of austerity, their livelihoods, are continually being wrecked.
Now is not the time for the government to be stubborn or lazy. Now is the time for change, and for a proper balance finally to be struck between public protection and personal privacy.
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