The justice secretary launched a review today to examine the way cautions and on-the-spot fines are used by the police and Crown Prosecution Service.
It follows reports that they have been inappropriately used to punish more serious offences which should be dealt with by the courts.
The review will consider how the number of out-of-court disposals used by the police and the CPS has changed in recent years as crime has fallen and convictions have remained stable, and the variations in their use between areas.
It will examine whether criminal justice agencies are complying with guidance on their use, including whether they are being inappropriately used for serious offences and persistent offenders.
Evidence on the effectiveness of out-of-court disposals, including their effect on re-offending and on promoting public confidence, will be looked at, together with the extent to which they are complied with by offenders and how effectively they are enforced.
Out-of-court disposals, such as cautions and on-the-spot fines, are intended to tackle low-level offending and anti-social behaviour that is of concern to local communities but not serious enough to merit prosecution.
The review will be led by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) and will report jointly to the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Attorney General?s Office.
Justice secretary Jack Straw said out-of-court disposals were introduced principally to address cases where no effective action was being taken, rather than as an alternative to court.
?However, I have been increasingly concerned about some of the reports of what seem to me to be inappropriate use of out-of-court disposals. These disposals are intended for dealing with antisocial behaviour and low-level offending that would previously have gone unpunished and not for serious, persistent or violent offenders who should always be brought before a court.?
Home secretary Alan Johnson said: ?Out-of-court disposals are an important tool for the police and can often be the most appropriate sanction when dealing with low-level offences. However, it is vital they are used appropriately and consistently by police forces across the country.?
Attorney general Baroness Scotland QC said: ?This review is an opportunity both to tighten up on any poor practice but also to improve public understanding of the role and value of out-of-court disposals.?
?Out-of-court disposals such as fixed penalties, cautions and other interventions have been available for a long time. Provided the right safeguards are in place, they provide a simple, speedy and fair way to respond to minor, uncontested offences and free up time for the police and courts to focus on more serious offences.?
Ministers will make a statement to parliament on the review in March 2010.