New criminal records rules came into force in the UK on 28 November 2020, which will make life much easier for large numbers of women who have experienced street prostitution and are trying to rebuild their lives.
Provided she didn’t serve a custodial sentence and the convictions are more than 11 years old, criminal records for loitering and soliciting to sell sex under Section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959 will no longer be automatically disclosed to employers – even on an enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check.
This is a result of legal action brought by three women, with the support of the Centre for Women’s Justice. All three of the women were pimped into prostitution as teenagers and all of their lives have been blighted by such criminal records. They argued that the disclosure of their criminal records was disproportionate, irrational and discriminatory on the grounds of sex. You can read the judgement here.
Please note that we are not lawyers and do not understand all the complicated detail of how the new rules will work. If more information becomes available, we will add a link here.
What does it feel like to no longer be a “criminal”?
We caught up with Julie, who was one of the women who brought the case (she was granted anonymity). I asked her how this news felt. This is what she said:
“This weekend I’ve gone through moments of feeling really pumped up and it’s like Oh my gosh… I never thought we’d get here. And then I think of how many women I know who’ve been affected like I’ve been and some have passed away and never got to live to see this day – and I feel sad.
And I am angry at the injustice of it. A whole generation of women were criminalized while now those same women would be seen as victims. But we were criminalised and we have paid such a high price for that.
Just think how many men are kerb crawlers. How does that affect their lives? Not many of them end up in court. Hardly any at all. At the most they might get a letter home – and they know it’s coming, so they wait for it so their wife doesn’t see it.
And meanwhile we’ve been branded as criminals for so many years and even decades.
I remember the last job interview I had. It was more than three years ago. I came home and felt devastated. That’s what spurred me to look for a solution and I found Harriet Wistrich at the Centre for Women’s Justice. In reality, I thought nothing would come of the case, but I knew I had to try something and I thought that even if we didn’t win it, it might change it for women coming after us.
I gave up applying for jobs after that interview. It was like, What’s the point? Why go and explain my life to someone when they just go: You’re not good enough.
But it wasn’t just job interviews. I had to go on work placements and I’ve had to reveal my convictions in front of men and they think it’s funny that you’re one of those kinds of girls.
I couldn’t even go into my kids’ school to help out. You have to have a DBS check to do that. Who wants people to know that?
I’ve got friends who’ve come so far out of that world of prostitution and have even got into uni. But then when it comes time to do a placement, they had to sit in front of a panel in the university of five men and explain how they got into that life. My friend had worked so hard to get that far and then she had to sit there and degrade herself. She got on the course but every time she tried to get a work placement, her criminal convictions would come up and she’d be rejected.
Why should she have to explain away her abuse? Because that’s what it was. It’s not like saying what school you went to or what GCSEs you’ve got. It was retraumatizing every time. It reinforces all your feelings of shame, because you see their judgement. It just reinforces all that negative stuff…
And now all that has changed!
I can’t even explain how that feels. It’s a lighter feeling. It means suddenly you can think about going to college or uni or applying for a job. All that starts to seem possible now – just knowing that I don’t have to worry about it anymore and I can tick the box that says no criminal convictions and know I’m not lying.
So there’s a little bit of vindication. Just a little bit, that you know what? I wasn’t the problem – when for a lot of years, from when I was a child, that was my thought – that I was the problem, and I think this is a little bit of vindication that actually I wasn’t the problem and I’m not the problem.”
The fight continues
While we are delighted at this news that will make life so much easier for many women, we recognise that it is not enough. There will be women whose criminal records for soliciting and loitering will not meet the requirements for being filtered out under the new rules. This is not justice and we will continue to lobby for change.
In addition, the criminal records will be retained on the Police National Computer (the PNC). The three women were given permission to challenge this in court on 19 and 20 January 2021. Unfortunately they were unsuccessful, but they vow to continue the fight.