MPs have criticised the lack of public scrutiny of the police cautions system following an investigation by the Leader.
In December, this newspaper revealed that hundreds of cautions have been handed out in Cheshire over the past four years for serious offences including rape, sexual assaults on children and serious violence.
In response to the story Cheshire Police said all of their cautions were given out in accordance with national guidelines and were judged on an individual basis.
They also added that out-of-court disposal panels – which are made up of magistrates, youth offending teams, police and CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) staff – check a percentage of police cautions every three months to ensure cautions are given out appropriately.
Cheshire Police were the first police force in the country to introduce the out-of-court disposal panels in 2013 – but there is no information available on the force’s website about them, their work, or the outcomes of their decisions.
A Home Affairs select committee said in 2013 that the panels would make the public “more confident in the system” if they were made aware of them.
The Leader submitted a Freedom of Information request to Cheshire Police about the work of out-of- court disposal panels in Cheshire and found that, between 2013 and 2015, a total of 528 cautions were checked by the panel out of a total of 5,958 handed out by police _ a total of 8.9 per cent.
Of the 528 checked, 81 were found to have been given out inappropriately.
The reasons given by the panel were that 61 of the offences were too serious for a caution and should have gone to court, 11 were because the offender had similar previous convictions, two offences had been wrongly recorded, two should have gone to court because of the offenders’ lack of police cooperation, one said that there should have been more intervention for an offender with alcohol issues and one had a lack of victim consultation.
A further three had no reason recorded.
MP for Deyln David Hanson, who is the Shadow Police and Justice Minister and the former Minister for Crime and Policing, was shown the results of our investigation.
He said the lack of information available to the public about the panels was “not acceptable”.
He said: “Public confidence in the caution system is vital to ensure that people know that police and the courts are delivering justice. If the system is flawed the public need to know.
“The figures obtained in this Freedom of Information request are worrying.
“Not only do they demonstrate that a significant number of cautions should have gone to court but they show that the information was not readily available for public scrutiny. This is not acceptable.
“I want to see this information made public so we are notified when inappropriate cautions have been implemented.
“Public scrutiny improves our justice system and more of it can only better the service that is provided to keep us safe.”
MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston Justin Madders said the systems needs “serious examination”.
He said: “I’m concerned that this information has not been made readily available to the public as there needs to be transparency in order for the public to have confidence that the cautions system is working well.
“In my view, for the panel to find that over 10% of cautions should have gone to court means there needs to be a serious examination of whether this system is working properly.
“I’d ask for a thorough review of the overall system and a much more proactive approach by the disposals panel until we can be satisfied cautions are being used proportionately and appropriately.
“I believe this review needs to look at in particular whether certain offences are more likely to result in inappropriate cautions or not.”
Cheshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner David Keane was asked whether he was concerned about the lack of public scrutiny on the work of Cheshire’s out-of-court disposal panels and failed to answer the question.
He sent this statement: “Cheshire’s Police and Crime Plan outlines the priority for policing in Cheshire to put victims first.
“In terms of the use of out-of- court disposals, local magistrates provide an important level of independent scrutiny on behalf of the judiciary.
“I know that the Constabulary uses the feedback from magistrates to inform local practice and to ensure that victims of crime and their wishes are prioritised.”
Currently the panels decide at random which cases they check with no system in place to ensure that cautions which are given out for inditable-only offences (offences which can only go to the Crown Court).
They meet once every three months to go through 20 cases which takes around three hours per panel. There are panels for northern, eastern and western Cheshire as well as one for youth offending.
When looking at cases the panel considers the seriousness, the views of the victim, the rationale of the officer and previous offending history.
They then decide whether to support the police decision or whether they don’t, giving their reasons why.
If the panel disagrees with a decision it does not necessarily mean that the issuing of the caution did not comply with national standards.
Detective Superintendent Jon Betts of Cheshire Constabulary said: “The purpose of the panels is to satisfy the judiciary, who are working independently of the force, that Cheshire Police is performing in line with force policy and national guidelines.
“In addition to the panels, checks are carried out daily by Cheshire Police’s Criminal Justice Department and if it is found that a caution has not been issued appropriately then feedback is given to the head of the force’s Criminal Justice Department and the chief inspector for the local area so that the officers behind those decisions can learn for the future.
“Victims of crime are at the forefront of the decision-making process regarding cautions and their wishes, in line with force policy and national guidelines, come first.
“There are times when a victim cannot face going to court but still wants to see justice done – this can be done through a caution which results in a criminal record and, in some cases, conditions which can include paying compensation or not contacting the victim. If the offender does not adhere to the conditions, they will face going to court.”