The current lack of a legal limit on the amount of time a person can be left on police bail is to be changed and a 28 day limit is to be imposed as part of new proposals by the Home Office.
What are the current police bail time limits?
Under the current legislation, in theory, a person could be placed on police bail for years without a decision ever being made on the case, and whilst in practice the average length of time spent on pre-charge bail is 53 days, as experienced solicitors at Olliers, we have seen numerous, serious cases when clients have been on police bail in excess of 12 months, often with very little information being forthcoming as to why. This, of course, not only results in the suspect’s life being effectively ‘put on hold’ whilst the investigation against he or she is ongoing, but creates uncertainty for the victims of crimes, and inevitably reduces the quality of the recollection of witnesses should these matters ultimately proceed to trial.
The Policing and Crime Bill
The Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently under consideration by Parliament, puts forward a 28 day time limit in which a decision must be made. Thereafter a Superintendent could extend bail for up to three more months, and any application to extend beyond this three month period would need to be made before a Magistrates’ Court, unless the case falls under the ‘exceptionally complex’ provisions. There is no proposed limit on how often such applications could be made to the Court, but it is anticipated that the Court would need to be satisfied that the investigation was taking place expeditiously and that there were grounds to keep the suspect on bail. This has been met with great concern from the College of Policing who have branded these amendments ‘dangerous’.
The College of Policing
David Tucker, from the College of Policing raises concerns about suspects being released from an investigation due to time restrictions on police bail, stating that this could result in other forces not being aware of ongoing concerns regarding his or her possible behaviour. He states:
‘That is a particular problem in relation to violent and sexual offences or other serious offences where it would be really important that a force investigation an offence is aware of all the issues regarding a suspect.”
The College has produced a 68 page Report on the plans, in which it cites the case of Ian Huntley, who was free to murder two schoolgirls in Soham in 2002, following a failure of police forces to share intelligence that they had upon him.
The basis, however, for these plans, is explained by Policing Minister, Brandon Lewis. In discussing the proposals he explained:
“The historic lack of oversight is one of the key reasons why many people have found themselves bailed for months or even years without proper scrutiny and no charges being brought.”
High profile cases of lengthy police bail
There have been many high profile cases in recent years which have brought the issue to light; Tom Crone, of News International, was placed on police bail for over two years before being informed that he would not face any charges in respect of telephone hacking allegations and Steve Hayes, former owner of Wycombe Wanderers FC and Wasps Rugby Club was re-bailed on at least nine separate occasions for a period of almost four years, before a decision to take no further action against him was made.
BBC broadcaster, Paul Gambaccini, who was on police bail for just under 12 months, from 29th October 2013 until 10th October 2015, who was ultimately told that he would not face a prosecution described his period on police bail as a ‘persecution’ and demanded ‘reform’. It would seem that the government has listened.
Certainly, a call for ‘proper scrutiny’ by Senior Police Officers of cases where suspects are on bail for a considerable length of time should be welcomed. It should simply not be acceptable that people can be kept on bail for months on end, with little by way of explanation, and no legal ability to challenge the position they are in. Furthermore, of course, in many cases, not only are suspects facing the uncertainty of being on pre-charge police bail, they are also subject to, what can be fairly onerous, bail conditions. Conditions of residence, curfews, and to report at local police stations, are frequently imposed, but to name a few, and often in cases where witnesses are known to the suspect, conditions of non-contact are imposed. These can often have a massive impact upon a suspect’s family life.
Is a 28 day limit too short?
Whilst a time limit upon pre-charge police bail is undoubtedly, from the defence perspective at least, a very welcome change, and the ability to demand that decisions to extend periods of bail be subject to scrutiny will ensure that investigations are being undertaken as expeditiously as possible, is a 28 day limit realistic?
Many cases involve some form of forensic examination, whether it be of a mobile phone, of DNA located at the scene of a crime, or of alleged drugs, to name but a few examples, and such examinations routinely exceed this proposed 28 day limit. These examinations are outsourced and there is often a back-log of cases, with more serious allegations taking precedent, and so there is little an officer with conduct of an investigation can do to speed up this process. Given current reductions in funding, should Inspectors and Superintendents, whose role is already extremely stretched, be required to utilise their time to authorise extensions to bail in these circumstances?
The Police Superintendents’ Association, Police Federation of England and Wales and the National Police Chief’s Council made a joint statement addressing exactly this point;
“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.
Current proposals will push responsibility up to Inspector and Superintendent ranks, which have been heavily reduced in recent years…”
They have asked the government to consider extending this period for up to 56 days and also a reduction in the authority level required for extensions to this time limit. Given that the average time spent on pre-charge bail is 53 days according to the College of Policing’s Report, perhaps this time frame is more realistic.
Will these reforms make a difference?
Whilst a statutory time limit is welcomed in principal, does the legislation go far enough? Whilst a Custody Sergeant can only authorise pre-charge bail for up to 28 days, and thereafter a senior ranking Officer must review any requests for a further re-bail, the government does propose that exceptionally serious cases should be subject to different provision. Cases classed under such a heading would allow the Director of the Serious Fraud Office or a Senior Crown Prosecutor to authorise bail for a period of six months before the case is referred to the Magistrates’ Court and it is likely that in serious cases, such as those high profile cases of Gambaccini and Hayes, bail would have been extended upon request for a similar length of time in any event. The only difference would be the expense involved in challenging the application before a Court.
In any event, a decision to scrutinise decisions to re-bail a suspect for any length of time should be welcomed by suspects and witnesses alike.
Laura Baumanis – Specialist Criminal Defence Solicitor
Laura Baumanis is a vastly experienced Magistrates’ Court advocate with an enviable success rate in all of her cases. She is also an experienced Duty Solicitor, attending police stations nationally to offer the best possible advice for detainees.