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Proposed time limits for police bail

View profile for Bartholomew Dalton
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The government is looking at introducing time limits for suspects kept on police bail. Suspects in criminal investigations are placed on police bail after they have been arrested but before they are charged, whilst the police continue to investigate the allegations. Often, at the end of their investigations the police will decide to take no further action due to the lack of evidence against the suspect. The police will often attach conditions to the suspect’s bail. Conditions can include: restrictions on who the suspect can contact, restrictions as to where they can live and sleep, geographical restrictions to where they can go or even a daily requirement to report to the police station. These conditions can significantly interfere with a suspect’s liberty and can be extremely disruptive to the suspect’s life. Currently, there is no time limit on how long suspects can be kept on police bail or how many times they can be re-bailed.

The College of Policing states that police bail should generally not last longer than 28 days. However, in reality, this is not the case as figures indicate that approximately 7.5% of those currently on police bail have been so for longer than six months. As well as often being practically difficult for suspects, a long time on police bail can be extremely stressful. Suspects and their families can be forced to endure months, or even years, of uncertainty and anguish, over unsubstantiated allegations.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has said that the Home Office will now hold a consultation on whether to introduce a time limit for police bail. Although the Home Office has not suggested a suitable length of time yet, Liberty, a human rights group, has suggested a six months time limit. My experience suggest that this is a sensible suggestion and would reduce the hardship suffered by many innocent people who are kept on police bail for large periods of time only to have no charges brought.

The Law Society has welcomed the home secretary’s proposal and has suggested a time limit of 28 days, after which the police could apply to a magistrate for an extension. The president of the Law Society stated “Not only does keeping someone on police bail interfere with their liberty, it also means that police investigations can be protracted and slow, making the justice system less efficient and with a negative effect on complaints and witnesses.”

Although I think the Law Society’s proposal has theoretical merits, I am not convinced that it would necessarily improve things in practice. It would all depend on whether magistrates would be willing to block spurious applications. If they were, this would force the police to only keep suspects on bail when necessary and would be a big improvement. However, if magistrates merely accepted applications to extend bail without properly questioning the necessity of the bail, the police’s current attitude to bail would be unchanged and the status quo would effectively remain. Instead, there would be more delay in an already over burdened and under resourced criminal justice system, as the courts would have to deal with a significantly increased case load.

Time limits might also encourage the police to use their powers of arrest more effectively. Compared with other jurisdictions, such as the USA, suspects are arrested in England and Wales at a very early stage of the investigative process. If time limits are introduced, when investigating complex offences, it may be that the police would delay arresting a suspect until they have carried out more investigations than would currently be the case. This should mean that less people are likely to be arrested on the basis of weak evidence. If the police did try to get round any time limits, by immediately re-arresting and then re-bailing someone immediately after their initial bail had expired, this should be viewed as an abuse of process and stopped by the courts.