Bail reform could lead to ‘endless investigation’
More than four out of 10 cases involving violence and sexual offences were bailed for more than 28 days, according to a new study warning about the impact of proposed reforms to police bail.
The Policing and Crime Bill seeks to limit bail initially to 28 days and three months in exceptional cases. It would introduce a presumption that suspects released while the police continue to investigate will not be bailed at all. The new legislation recommends bail which is extended beyond 28 days should be authorised by a superintendent and cases where bail is extended for three months or more be agreed at magistrates’ court.
According to the report by the College of Policing, there is a danger of investigations ‘without deadlines’. It reported that the average length of time individuals spent on pre-charge bail, including extensions, was 53 days; and that more than four out of 10 of all cases involving violence and sexual offences (41%) were bailed for more than 28 days.
Time allowed for forensic analysis was one of the main reasons for long periods of pre-charge bail with phone downloads being the most frequent type. The study found that six out of 10 cases involving suspects who were bailed for more than 90 days involved some form of forensic analysis.
David Tucker, crime lead at the College of Policing, warned about ‘the impact on victims of crime and in particular violent and sexual cases where pre-charge bail is most likely to be required’ of the proposals. ‘We know our members want to conduct effective investigations and keep victims and suspects informed of the progress in their case and when a person is not on bail, there is a danger that an investigation will not have deadlines,’ he said.
The Police Federation has asked the Home Office to consider extending the initial bail period for up to 56 days. ‘Forensic examinations routinely take more than 28 days and are often outside of the control of police; this is particularly true of sexual offences and cases involving drugs,’ commented general secretary of the Police Federation, Andy Fittes; vice president of the Superintendents Association, Paul Griffiths; and Chief Constable Simon Byrne of the National Police Chiefs. ‘We are concerned that a limit of 28 days will mean time and resources will be taken up applying for extensions rather than investigating these complex cases.’
The current regime for pre-charge bail was introduced 30 years ago in PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). No restriction on the amount of time police can hold someone on pre-charge bail was specified in PACE; however the College of Policing’s guidance on detention and custody suggests that a sergeant can authorise bail for up to 28 days with possible extensions requiring authority from senior officers.
The new legislation was proposed in response to cases such as that of the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who was on police bail for more than a year until charges of historic sexual abuse against him were dropped. He memorably described himself as being used by the police as human flypaper. Last year the Home Affairs Select Committee called on the police to ‘stop shaming suspects and holding them in indefinite limbo’. The committee backed recommendations for a 28-day police bail limit.
Writing for the Justice Gap. Ruth Harris, criminal defence partner at Hodge, Jones & Allen expressed her concerns about the unintended consequences of bail reform.
‘Presently, those arrested and bailed at least have a date (however illusory) to work towards and know that at some stage the investigating officer will have to be in contact – if only to re-bail. Those simply released will be in an unenviable position. They will be under investigation with no end in sight and no means by which they can challenge the ‘whiff of suspect’ hanging round them.’
Mehdi Shakarchi is a solicitor with a particular interest in criminal defence and human rights. He is currently an intern with Reprieve's Middle East death penalty team and a commissioning editor with the Justice Gap