Twenty years ago, I made two mistakes.
First, I was caught stealing a book worth 99p – then I compounded this by missing an appointment before a magistrate. I received two convictions.
I was later given a diagnosis for schizophrenia. These mistakes were directly due to my illness, for which I was much later hospitalised and given housing. I have committed no offences in the two decades since.
Over the past 20 years, my health has improved and I want to give back to society. I once worked in education and would love to return to work as a teaching assistant – but I have struggled to find anyone willing to take me on.
I firmly believe this is, at least in part, because the government’s Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) rules require anyone with “multiple convictions”, no matter how minor or historical, to disclose that fact in job applications for ever – no exceptions.
So, in applications, including for voluntary positions, I disclose my multiple convictions (for the theft and for failing to meet the terms of my bail), which leads to a discussion of my medical history. This is often uncomfortable and always unnecessary: I am not a danger to anyone. But I am one of thousands of people in Britain caught in this cycle, approaching each new application knowing that these facts of a past life will be pored over and lead to searching and embarrassing questions – eventually the application will be simply discarded from the pile.
Represented by Liberty, I first challenged the DBS system in the high court, and won. The court found the “multiple convictions” rule to be disproportionate and incompatible with my right to privacy.
The government appealed, so we won again at the court of appeal. For reasons known only to the Home Office, they decided to delay reform and prolong this fight even further, taking it to the supreme court, which this week, after four long years of exhausting fight, found in our favour, just as the other courts had.
Alongside my case, the court also ruled against the government over the rights of a woman who has to disclose that she was twice convicted of driving offences involving seatbelts. The government also lost (again) over rules that treat cautions someone received as a child in the same way as criminal convictions received as a child.
It seems extraordinary that the government fought three needless court battles, obtaining three losses at the taxpayers’ expense, all to defend a bureaucratic system that considers people convicted of minor and serious offences in the exact same manner. It fought for years for a system that holds back decent, ordinary, law-abiding people – who have done their time – from meaningful rehabilitation.
The government has no choice now but to fix this blunt and unfair system. It must create a more flexible scheme, which considers each person’s individual circumstances when assessing old and minor convictions. This way, people would still have to declare any offence that indicates they might pose a risk of harm, but it would allow those with more than one conviction for less serious offences to move on.
This is not simply about my particular case. Society as a whole has moved towards a greater appreciation of rehabilitation, and the effective treatment of mental health. The Home Office has been left behind by this progress.
Three courts have ruled in my favour, finding that I should not go through the rest of my life with a black mark by my name. We also won a case on behalf of the thousands of people like me, who have made mistakes and paid for them – who desperately want to live normal lives and contribute to society.
I made a mistake 20 years ago. It’s time the government allowed me to move on.