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What do unspent criminal convictions mean?

Updated February 21, 2017

Certain criminal convictions will remain on the offender's record forever in the United Kingdom, while other types may be forgiven over time. This system of "unspent" and "spent" criminal convictions was designed to give someone who has committed a minor offence the chance to avoid the problems that arise from having a criminal history.

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Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA) is legislation that was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom which created the system of spent and unspent convictions. The act applies to offenders in England, Scotland and Wales. These laws were designed to help people avoid a permanent criminal record for minor offences and minimise ex-offender employment discrimination. This act contains all the provisions for spent and unspent convictions, including eligibility, time frames, and the specific allowances for each type of infraction.

Difference between spent and unspent convictions

Someone who was convicted of a criminal offence and given a prison sentence of not more than two and a-half years is eligible to enter a "rehabilitation period" that begins from the date of the conviction. The duration of the period depends on the sentence given by the court. Once this period is ended and all penalties--like jail sentences, fines or probation--have been complied with, the conviction becomes "spent" and the offender's record is wiped clean. Jail sentences of more than two and a-half years are not eligible for the rehabilitation period. These types of offences, known as unspent convictions, are never removed from the offender's criminal record.


There have been instances of employers dismissing an applicant solely based on any unspent convictions the prospective employee has, despite laws in the UK forbidding this practice. An ex-offender attempting to enter a university or training institution may be denied if the facility determines the unspent convictions signal the person poses a threat to others. Some arms of the military forces will not take applicants who have unspent criminal convictions, and ex-offenders who are trying to obtain legal residency are routinely denied.

Disclosure under the Police Act of 1997

According to the Police Act of 1997, ex-offenders must disclose any unspent convictions to a prospective employer when applying for a job if this information is requested or required. The employer can ask the applicant to obtain one of three types of disclosures available: Basic Disclosure, Standard Disclosure, and Enhanced Disclosure. All three certificates will list unspent criminal convictions, and Enhanced Disclosures show information from local police authorities and other public agencies. An employer has the right to terminate an employee who did not disclose unspent convictions if asked at the time of hire, and the employee can be prosecuted.


The length of the ordered jail term at the time of sentencing is what is used to determine if a conviction can be spent or must remain unspent. For example, a person given three years in prison who was released on parole after one year will have an unspent conviction on record. If someone commits another offence while already in a rehabilitation period to have another conviction spent, both offences may become unspent under certain circumstances. If the new offence is tried in the Crown Court and a sentence of more than two and a-half years is given, both convictions will become unspent.

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About the Author

Anna Assad

Anna Assad began writing professionally in 1999 and has published several legal articles for various websites. She has an extensive real estate and criminal legal background. She also tutored in English for nearly eight years, attended Buffalo State College for paralegal studies and accounting, and minored in English literature, receiving a Bachelor of Arts.

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