What is an unspent conviction? 

What is an unspent conviction? 

23 May 2024


What is an unspent conviction?  

A criminal conviction or caution can throw a long shadow over someone’s day to day life, even after the sentence has been served. In the UK, a distinction is made between convictions or cautions which are ‘spent’ and ‘unspent’.   

The difference between the two will be important as you move on from your caution or conviction. Equally, understanding the difference can help employers to process the results of DBS checks on potential employees.  

In this article, we’ll explain what an unspent conviction is and look at how it can impact someone’s future opportunities. We’ll also help employers to appreciate what information they can expect on a DBS check and what it really means.  

What is an Unspent Conviction?  

An unspent conviction is a criminal conviction that hasn’t passed the designated rehabilitation period. This means that, during this time, a conviction will remain on an individual’s criminal record and can be disclosed through background checks conducted by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). These checks are called DBS checks. Previously, the checks that were carried out to check criminal records were known as CRB checks.  

Different DBS checks  

The DBS is the non-departmental public body in the UK responsible for processing DBS checks. A DBS check verifies an individual’s criminal record and their suitability for certain job roles. There are three levels of DBS checks, and they offer different levels of detail. The DBS check that needs to be undertaken by an individual depends on the role involved. The three different DBS levels are:     

Basic DBS check  

A Basic Check is the lowest level of DBS check and the only DBS check that an individual can run on themselves. The Basic DBS reveals details of convictions and cautions that haven’t been spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA).    

Standard DBS check  

The Standard DBS check can be requested for an individual by an organisation or company, with certain roles in finance and security requiring this check. The Standard DBS includes the same information as the basic check, along with any further information held on the Police National Computer (PNC). This may include information about non-criminal cautions or investigations.  

Enhanced DBS check  

The Enhanced DBS check is the most comprehensive DBS check and can be requested for an individual by a company or organisation. Enhanced disclosure is most often associated with roles that involve regulated activity with vulnerable adults and/or children. An Enhanced DBS reveals spent and unspent convictions, cautions, and any other information deemed relevant by the DBS, such as details of previous employment or disciplinary actions.  

How Long Does a Conviction Remain Unspent?  

The rehabilitation period for a conviction will depend on the severity of the offence and the sentence that was imposed.   

Every instance and individual will have a different sentence imposed but you will find a commonality across how these are classified:  

No custodial sentence
Minor offences that typically have shorter rehabilitation periods. These could range from 6 months to 2.5 years and could be for offences like vandalism or shoplifting.  

Custodial sentence less than 2.5 years
The rehabilitation period starts following the point of release and can last between 4 to 7 years. This custodial sentence could have been handed down in instances of offences that include driving under the influence of drink or drugs or a common assault charge.   

Custodial sentence over 2.5 years
There are certain serious offences that result in a prison sentence that will never be considered as spent. Offences that incur a custodial sentence of over two and a half years are likely to include violence or be considered to be on a large scale.     

Impact of Unspent Convictions  

Unspent convictions can affect your life in several ways:  

Job Applications
Depending on the job role and the type of DBS check required, an unspent conviction may be disclosed to a potential employer. This may impact your recruitment opportunities, especially in the security or financial sectors, or roles that involve public-facing roles. For employers, a DBS check will not offer judgement on the individual but it will provide information that allows you to make balanced decisions.   

Professional Licences
There are certain professions, that include social work or legal positions, that require a clean criminal record as part of the job requirements. An unspent conviction may prevent an individual’s ability to obtain or upkeep the relevant professional licence.  

When applying for visas or immigration status, an unspent conviction might be considered during the visa assessment process. Serious offences or repeat convictions could lead to denied applications.  

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA)  

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA) offers a way for individuals with spent convictions to have them disregarded for most purposes. Once a conviction becomes spent under the ROA, it won’t show up on most DBS checks. The exception to this is enhanced DBS checks that would be conducted for roles that require working with children or vulnerable adults.  

How to Check Unspent Convictions  

If you’re unsure about the status of your convictions and would like to find out where you stand, there are steps you can take. Here’s how to check unspent convictions:  

Police Station: Visit your local police station and request a Subject Access Request. This allows you to access your criminal record information, including details of convictions and spent/unspent status.  

DBS Check: Apply for a basic DBS check to see which convictions and cautions would be disclosed on a background check. This can give you a clearer picture of what potential employers or organisations might see.  

Moving Forward with Unspent Convictions  

Having an unspent conviction doesn’t have to define your future. Here are some ways that both job applicants and potential employers can address any unspent convictions during the hiring process.  

Be Honest
As an applicant, if asked about your criminal record during a job application, be honest and upfront about your convictions. Explain the circumstances surrounding the offence and take the opportunity to highlight the steps you’ve taken to address the issue and how you’ve moved forward positively.  

Highlight Your Skills and Experience
Don’t let your past overshadow your present qualifications. Showcase your relevant skills, experience, and achievements to demonstrate your value as a candidate. Focus on how your skills and experience can benefit the employer.  

Seek Support
Organisations like Unlock offer guidance and support to individuals with criminal records. They can provide advice on navigating job applications, disclosure of convictions, and even help with rehabilitation programs. 

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