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Law Column: Shorter times for rehabilitation of offenders

As of Monday March 10, the rehabilitation periods contained in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (“the Act”) have been shortened substantially.

Reducing the length of rehabilitation periods for offenders is an issue that has long been debated, with a potential reduction in reoffending being a commonly cited reason for the changes.

But the real question that needs to be answered is not why the periods have been shortened, but instead: what are the changes? And importantly, what do they mean for journalists?

The changes apply to rehabilitation periods in England and Wales only, and will apply retrospectively, so that those convicted prior to 10 March 2014 will also be subject to the new rules. The applicable periods for Scotland are unchanged, and the situation in Northern Ireland is still governed by the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.

Previously the rehabilitation periods ran from the date of conviction, but the system has now changed so that the rehabilitation period is made up of the length of the sentence, and an additional “buffer” period. At the end of the buffer period, the conviction becomes spent.

The changes in relation to custodial sentences see a significant reduction in the rehabilitation period, even when you consider that the new buffer period runs from the end of the sentence, rather than from conviction. It should also be noted that now a conviction resulting in a custodial sentence of up to 4 years can one day be spent, rather than custodial sentences over 30 months never becoming spent, as was the case previously.

Custodial Sentence Length Previous Rehabilitation Period (which applied from date of conviction) New Rehabilitation Period (which is the length of the sentence plus the “buffer” period outlined below)
0 – 6 months 7 years 2 years
6 – 30 months 10 years 4 years
30 months to 4 years Never spent 7 years
Over 4 years Never spent Never spent
Sentence Previous Rehabilitation Period (which applied from date of conviction) New Rehabilitation Period
Community Order (& Youth Rehabilitation Order) 5 years 1 year from the end of the Order
Fine 5 years 1 year from date of conviction
Absolute discharge 6 months None
Conditional discharge, referral order, reparation order, action plan order, supervision order, bind over order, hospital order Various – mostly between one year and length of the relevant order Period of the Order


As before, the above periods should be halved for those who are under 18 when they are convicted, with the exception that for custodial sentences of up to 6 months, the buffer period will be 18 months.

One of the key points from a journalist’s perspective is to remember that if it is in the public interest, even spent convictions can be disclosed. Such a disclosure can benefit from the absolute or qualified privilege, honest opinion and/or truth defences, depending on the circumstances.

However, what should also be remembered in relation to revealing spent convictions is that malice will defeat a truth defence. This contradicts the general rule that the truth is a complete defence to a claim for defamation – the rationale behind this anomaly is that it deters spent convictions from being revealed without a good reason. What’s more, previous spent convictions that are deemed inadmissible in court will not attract protection under absolute or qualified privilege, for obvious reasons.

The bottom line is that the effect of rehabilitation periods upon journalists is unchanged; save for the fact that the period of time it takes for convictions to become spent is far shorter than before.

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  • March 19, 2014 at 7:32 am

    It is also worth pointing out that convictions only become spent so long as an individual is not reconvicted and the rehabilitation period for convictions relating to driving endorsements (not fixed penalty notices) carry a rehabilitation period of 5 years. This leaves an absurdity in the cases of individuals convicted for vehicle theft resulting in a fine which would need to be disclosed for 1 year. If they also received a driving endorsement in court then they would need to disclose the vehicle theft for 5 years.

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