Drop minor convictions from criminal record checks, court rules
All police cautions and minor convictions should not have to be disclosed in criminal record checks, the Supreme Court has ruled.
Judges said any requirement to do so would be incompatible with human rights legislation in England and Wales.
The ruling affects those applying for certain kinds of jobs involving work with children or the vulnerable.
It upholds a Court of Appeal ruling in the case of a job applicant forced to reveal cautions he received aged 11.
He was supported by human rights campaign group Liberty, which said the Supreme Court's judgement was "an injection of proportionality into our criminal records system".
The man whose case was considered by the court, identified as "T", said he had been forced to disclose warnings he received from Greater Manchester Police in connection with the alleged theft of two bicycles.
His records were later checked when he applied for a part-time job at a football club aged 17 and later for a university course in sports studies.
Clive Coleman, BBC legal affairs correspondent
For how long should a criminal conviction or caution affect a person's employment prospects, and when should it recede into a "protected" personal past? That is the issue at the heart of today's ruling.
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 provides that, after a period, a person's criminal convictions are spent, so don't need to be disclosed to prospective employers. A caution is spent as soon as it is given.
However, until T's successful Court of Appeal case last year, there was a regime under which, for certain jobs including those working with children and the vulnerable, all convictions and cautions which would otherwise have been spent were disclosed.
Brought in in the wake of the Soham murders, it was an attempt to safeguard the young and the vulnerable but was seen by many as penalising those with minor spent convictions and cautions.
Today's ruling, combined with the filtering system introduced by the Home Office, means some past cautions and convictions will remain part of a "protected" private life and play no part in a person's application for a job.
Another instance involved a woman, identified by the court as "JB", who challenged the checks after she was refused a job in a care home eight years after receiving a caution for shoplifting.
Making their ruling, the Supreme Court judges said the disclosures T and JB had been required to make "were not necessary in a democratic society" and "were not based on any rational assessment of risk".
Around four million people apply for a criminal records check every year.
Last year, three Court of Appeal judges said the blanket checks could breach the right to a private or family life.
After that ruling, the judges said it would be a matter for Parliament to decide what amendments to make to records check rules.
The Home Office has since introduced a system to filter out single minor convictions or cautions.
But the government pursued an appeal against the Court of Appeal ruling, saying the "protection of children and vulnerable groups must not be compromised".
Lawyers for Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling argued that the court's ruling was too broad and could affect hundreds of thousands of recruitment decisions where convictions were "plainly relevant".
Working with children
The Supreme Court - the highest court in the UK and the final court of appeal in cases of public importance - heard the case on 9 December but has only just announced its decision to rule against the government.
Under the new filtering system, cautions given to adults are removed from criminal records checks after six years.
Cautions to children are filtered out after two years.
Nicola Inge, of Business in the Community - which campaigns to remove the criminal record tick box from job applications - said she was "really happy" with the court's verdict.
She told BBC Radio 5 Live employers often had a "knee jerk reaction" to learning of an applicant's convictions, and applicants were not given the opportunity to explain the "context".
James Welch, Liberty's legal director, added: "Rules which allowed for blanket disclosure left no room for common sense and let irrelevant and unreliable information ruin lives."