A police caution is a formal alternative to prosecution in minor cases, administered by the police 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 (since 2005 more properly known as a simple caution) is a formal warning given by the police to an adult offender aged 18 years or over and who has admitted that they are guilty of an offence.
The aims of the formal police caution are:
- to offer a proportionate response to low level offending where the offender has admitted the offence;
- to deliver swift, simple and effective justice that carries a deterrent effect;
- to record an individual’s criminal conduct for possible reference in future criminal proceedings or in criminal record or other similar checks;
- to reduce the likelihood of re-offending;
- to increase the amount of time officers spend dealing with more serious crime and reduce the amount of time police officers spend completing paperwork and attending court, whilst simultaneously reducing the burden on the courts.
Types of cautions
As a result of changes made by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, cautions can be administered in two forms: as a simple caution or as a conditional caution, the latter of 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.
Although a caution is not a conviction, it forms a part of a person's criminal record and can be used as evidence of bad character if a person goes to court for another crime, and in Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) now called Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for certain types of employment. A caution might cause some countries not to allow visits to, or residence in, that country.
Circumstances for use
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).
Cautions are typically administered in the case of an offence that is triable summarily or either-way. The Ministry of Justice recommends that the decision to offer a simple caution for the most serious of offences (an indictable only offence, an either-way offence routinely dealt with at the Crown Court or any offence which the sentencing guidelines indicate has a starting point at high level community order or sentence of imprisonment) is taken only in exceptional circumstances.
People aged 17 or under may receive a youth caution where the following conditions are met:
- there must be evidence that the offender has committed an offence;
- the quality of the evidence must be sufficient to give a realistic prospect of conviction;
- the offender must admit the offence;
- the offender must have no previous convictions;
- a prosecution of the offence would not be in the public interest.
Only the police have the power to administer a caution. The CPS does, however, have a role to play in helping the police to ensure that the Ministry of Justice guidelines contained within the Guidance 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.
Per the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, simple cautions, reprimands and final warnings become spent (meaning that they do not need to be disclosed, unless applying for particular types of work) immediately, and conditional cautions become spent after 3 months.
Cautions will appear on a DBS certificate until 6 years have passed (or 2 years if the person was under 18 at the time of caution) provided the offence is not on the prescribed list of offences that will never be filtered from a criminal record check.
All information relating to simple cautions (as well as convictions) issued for a recordable offence is retained on the Police National Computer (PNC). Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidelines set out how long this information will be retained for. The information is kept for police operational reasons and in the interest of prevention and detection of crime.
It is likely the practice of using police cautions began early in the nineteenth century. In the 1920s written warnings started being given for motoring offences. In 1928 the Home Office published statistics on cautions, and by 1931 was giving advice on the wording of cautions.
In 1959 the Street Offences Act made a provision for removing cautions from criminal records. In 1962 Royal Commission on the Police noted concerns about the uneven enforcement of cautions. In 1978 the Home Office issued its first circular to bring about consistency in the use of cautions for juveniles, and in 1985 for adults.
From 1995 cautions were recorded on the Police National Computer, and it was recommended that cautions should be retained for 5 years, though each police force could follow its own guidelines. The 1997 Police Act made provision for disclosing cautions to employers of those who might have unsupervised contact with children.
In 2006 new guidelines were issued for the retention of records until the subject reached 100 years of age, but after 5 or 10 years, depending on the severity of the offence, they would only be used for CRB checks.
In 2008 a Home Office circular made clear suspects must receive a written explanation of the implications before accepting a caution, to meet the informed consent obligation, and provided a new form to be signed by the offender which explained in considerable detail the consequences.
In recent years a lower level resolution of offences has often been used by police forces in England and Wales instead of a caution. This is usually called a 'community resolution' and invariably requires less police time as offenders are not arrested. A community resolution does not require any formal record but the offender should admit the offence and the victim should be happy with this method of informal resolution. Concerns have been expressed over the use of community resolution for violent offences, in particular 'domestic violence'. 
- "R (on the Application of Stratton) v Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police". High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division. BAILII. 7 June 2013.  EWHC 1561 (Admin) Case No: CO/3561/2012. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
- A police caution administered to a suspect upon arrest or prior to questioning them about their involvement in a suspected offence may be phrased as: "You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."
- "Ministry of Justice Guidance". Simple Cautions for Adult Offenders. Ministry of Justice. April 2013.
- Home Office Circular Simple Cautioning of Adult Offenders
- Home Office Simple Caution explained leaflet
- Police cautions, warnings and penalty notices
- Guidance to Police Officers and Crown Prosecutors Issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, section 9.1 "Where the police consider that the Threshold Test is met in a case, other than an indictable only offence, and determine that it is in the public interest instead to administer a simple caution, or to administer a reprimand or final warning in the case of a youth, the police may issue that caution, reprimand or final warning as appropriate, without referring the case to a Crown Prosecutor."
- The Crown Prosecution Service. "Guidance - Ministry of Justice - Simple Caution for Adult Offenders - 8 April 2013". Retrieved 18 June 2013.
- What is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974?
- "DBS Filtering Guide". gov.uk. The Disclosure and Barring Service. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- 'community resolutions are being abused' '10,000 attackers 'let off' under coalition- Cooper' 'Labour may make domestic violence a specific crime' The Guardian 28 July 2014