5 February 2021

The Sentencing Academy has published a new report by Cerys Gibson (University of Nottingham) reviewing the use of out of court disposals in England and Wales.

Read the full report here:

Executive Summary:

• Out of court disposals (OOCDs) have long been viewed by advocates to be an efficient and effective response to criminal behaviour, in particular in the case of low-level offending by first time offenders.

• In most police force areas in England and Wales there are currently six different OOCDs available: community resolutions; cannabis/khat warnings; Fixed Penalty Notices; Penalty Notices for Disorder; simple cautions; and conditional cautions.

• Some police force areas have been trialling a new, two-tier, approach to OOCDs in recent years and the Government’s September 2020 White Paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, proposes rolling this out nationally. This will reduce the number of available OOCDs to two: community resolutions (for less serious offending/offenders with limited offending histories) and conditional cautions (for more serious offending/offenders with more significant offending histories).

• The use of OOCDs rose sharply between 2004 and 2007 following the introduction of an ‘offenders brought to justice’ target for police forces. The removal of this target precipitated a steady decline in the use of OOCDs since 2008.

• OOCDs can offer efficiency savings as it is generally quicker and cheaper to issue an OOCD than it is to prosecute an offence through the courts. This can have advantages for all parties involved in the criminal justice process, including facilitating greater victim involvement. However, the use of OOCDs also raises concerns about whether they are being used consistently and for appropriate cases. There is a wide variation in the use of OOCDs between different police forces: in 2018, OOCDs accounted for 10% of offences brought to justice in Cleveland but 53% of offences brought to justice in neighbouring Durham.

• Concerns have also been raised about the adequacy of the mechanisms of ensuring accountability of decision-making in the issuing of OOCDs. The primary method of external accountability is through the use of OOCD scrutiny panels; however, the organic evolution of these panels has raised questions about their effectiveness.

• Whilst OOCDs are an important tool in the criminal justice system’s toolbox, it is essential that scrutiny is applied to the decision-making process to ensure that OOCDs are issued efficiently, appropriately and consistently.