Key findings

  • There is a lack of robust evidence demonstrating the impact of unpaid work on breach and/or reoffending. Service users have self-reported positive benefits from unpaid work in relation to their desistance from future crime.
  • There appear to be many factors linked to compliance and engagement. The main factors include: flexibility and tailoring the unpaid work to the needs of the individual; and the individual feeling that the work is useful and rewarding.


Unpaid work, also known as ‘community payback’, is one of the 13 requirements available to add to community orders and suspended sentence orders in England and Wales. It can be imposed for between 40 and 300 hours, dependent on the seriousness of the offence, to be completed within 12 months.

The main purpose of unpaid work is to provide punishment and reparation – with service users working on projects that benefit the community. There is also the potential for rehabilitative benefits, as unpaid work can provide an opportunity to develop life and vocational skills which are supportive of desistance.

The proportion of orders including an unpaid work requirement has remained fairly stable; approximately one in three community orders and just under one in three suspended sentence orders including such a requirement.

Summary of the evidence

There have been no systematic reviews on the impact of unpaid work on reoffending rates. However, the following factors have been highlighted for improving the rehabilitative effect of unpaid work:

  • work that is experienced as useful and rewarding
  • opportunities to develop employment-related skills
  • staff following the principles of pro-social modelling, demonstrating good behaviours
  • providing clear information and consistent application of the rules
  • commencing the work promptly and being able to work regularly.

There have been several key studies from across the United Kingdom.

England and Wales

In 2014, the Ministry of Justice published research on community orders with punitive requirements, including results from a survey of service users. Key findings related to unpaid work were as follows:

  • nearly two-thirds of service users thought that unpaid work made them less likely to commit crime, but around one in five disagreed
  • compliance with unpaid work was higher in relation to the following:
    • service users who thought their probation practitioner listened to them ‘a lot’ compared with ‘a little’ in deciding the type of unpaid work
    • service users who felt the unpaid work was ‘not demanding at all’ compared with those who said it was ’very’ demanding
    • older service users, those without an accommodation need, and those with children
  • service users were more likely to report that they had breached their order when they had an unpaid work requirement in the sentence (controlling for factors including the likelihood of reoffending).


An evaluation of Community Payback Orders (CPOs) in Scotland was published in 2015. The evaluation was primarily focused on the implementation process of three concurrent, related reforms, with a short-term impact assessment focused upon engagement, compliance, and breach. Key findings related specifically to the unpaid work requirement were as follows:

  • flexibility in terms of when individuals could complete their hours was viewed to be positive, especially for those with other commitments, for example, employment or childcare
  • the process for assessing suitability and matching individual needs appeared to be working well. However, the emphasis on speed of commencement could affect the initial placements available, with some delays in matching to more suitable placements
  • orders with a sole unpaid work requirement had the highest rate of successful completion
  • engagement and compliance were most likely when the CPO was tailored to the service user’s needs and interests. Other factors that service users responded positively to included feeling that they were paying back to the community, and the sociable element of unpaid work.

Northern Ireland

Evidence from Northern Ireland’s Enhanced Combination Order (ECO) pilot suggested that over three quarters of service users found the unpaid work aspect useful. This was despite issues with securing restorative placements, particularly when there was no identifiable victim. Staff reported a need for more creativity to better meet the needs of specific service users.

Inspection data
In our 2016 Thematic Inspection of the Delivery of Unpaid Work, inspectors found significant variations in the quality of unpaid work delivery. We reported as follows:

  • there was little consideration given by probation practitioners as to how unpaid work could contribute to the broader aims of probation intervention, most notably that of desistance
  • responses to non-compliance were unsatisfactory, with insufficient evidence being provided to justify the decision that an absence was acceptable
  • despite few probation practitioners discussing how unpaid work could assist service users in leading better lives, a significant proportion of those interviewed stated they were determined to view their sentence positively and desist from future offending.

Unpaid work gives you the time to realise what you have done. My probation worker praises me and makes me feel good about myself, the staff here do as well. I think if I can do this, I can do a proper job and I have just applied for a job as a carer. The man who runs the place is an ex-policeman and I told him about my offence but he said they would give me a chance. I am just waiting for my DBS [Disclosure and Barring Scheme] paperwork.

Across our 2018/2019 probation inspections, we examined 891 unpaid work cases. The summary judgement data from those inspections are set out in the figure below, indicating that unpaid work provisions were judged as sufficient in a reasonable majority of cases across all four key questions.

Graph represents 'focus on key issues relevant to unpaid work: 69%', 'unpaid work maximises opportunities for personal development: 70%', 'unpaid work has sufficient focus on supporting engagement and compliance: 72%' and 'court sentence implemented effectively: 77%'.

Key references

Anderson, S., Hinchliffe, S., Homes, A., McConville, S., Wild, A., Hutton, N. and Noble, S. (2015). Evaluation of Community Payback Orders. Criminal Justice Social Work Reports and the Presumption Against Short Sentences. Edinburgh: Scottish Government Social Research.

Cattel, J., Kenny, T., Lord, C. and Wood, M. (2014). Community Orders with punitive requirements: Results from the Offender Management Community Cohort Study. Ministry of Justice Analytical Series. London: Ministry of Justice.

McIvor, G. (2016). ‘What is the Impact of Community Service?’, in McNeill, F., Durnescu, I. and Butter, R. (eds.) Probation: 12 Essential Questions, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 107-128.

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Last updated: 17 May 2021