Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

Police cautions 'to be reviewed'

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith says she was denied justice as her attacker was cautioned

The use of cautions for criminal offences is to be reviewed, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced.

The move comes after the BBC learned that almost 40,000 cases of assault were dealt with by cautions in England and Wales last year.

The figures have led to fears among some that out-of-court punishments are being wrongly used.

Mr Straw told the BBC he had "concerns" about the variations between the way different forces were using them.

Cautions are formal warnings, issued at the discretion of the police if the offender admits their guilt.

In England and Wales, half of all criminal cases are now punished out of court by way of cautions, warnings and fines - direct measures meant to be fast and fair and aimed at cutting costs and unclogging the courts system of minor offences like anti-social behaviour.

Research by Panorama found 739 people charged with grievous bodily harm were given cautions in England and Wales in 2008.

Cases of burglary, child neglect, sexual assault and even rape were also dealt with by caution last year.


'More consistency'

Mr Straw told the BBC's World at One that he and Home Secretary Alan Johnson had some concerns about the matter.

"We have decided, not least because of representations from magistrates... that we shall jointly be announcing a review of the use of out of court disposals, which will be led by the Office of Criminal Justice Reform, and will involve the inspectors of constabulary and the inspectorate of the criminal justice system."

Mr Straw said there were very clear guidelines about when cautions should be used and it was "absolutely not the case" they were being handed out as means of keeping prison numbers down.

But he said the review would look at how the guidelines were being interpreted.

The CPS has recently issued guidance about assaults in particular which stated that anything above the most minor assault - common assault - was too serious to be punished by caution.

Asked whether that was being implemented properly, Mr Straw said "That is basically the way the system is supposed to operate at the moment and we will certainly be looking very clearly at that."

Results from 39 of 41 police forces in England and Wales surveyed
38,952 cautions issued for actual bodily harm (ABH)
739 cautions issued for grievous bodily harm (GBH)
Half of all criminal cases dealt with using cautions
Cautions are not used in Scotland

The director of prosecutions has agreed a more "coherent system across the board" is needed.

Keir Starmer told the BBC's Panorama the gradual introduction of different out-of-court punishments - some of which were administered by the police and others by the CPS - had led to a lack of consistency."

One victim of assault, Lauren Smith, 26, from Newcastle, said she was angry that her attacker received only a caution.

She said: "He's walking around scot-free thinking he's got away with it. People will think, 'Oh, well, if I punch a girl in the face that's OK, I'm just going to get a caution.' It means nothing."

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