Plans by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to introduce a 28 day time limit on the use of police bail before a suspect is charged have been delayed by two months whilst a coalition dispute over implementation is resolved. The change in the law cannot go further until the dispute is resolved between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as to how extensions beyond the new 28 day limit will be approved.
Nick Clegg has pressed for the suspect to be able to challenge an extension of bail up to three months before the Magistrates Court, whilst Theresa May has argued that in most cases an extension should only require the authorisation of a senior police officer.
Increase in Time on Bail
The Home Office has estimated that the change in the law could affect nearly 60,000 cases a year involving people currently on lengthy police bail without being charged. At present, there is no time limit on those on police bail before they are charged. Lawyers representing those in respect of criminal proceedings advise that the time suspects remain on police bail has increased significantly in the past few years for reasons such as the police awaiting the results of forensic examinations, awaiting decisions as to charge from the Crown Prosecution Service and awaiting the result of further enquires. It is not unusual for suspects to remain on police bail for several months and many have remained on police bail for over 12 months.
Pre-charge Bail Conditions
In addition to these, suspects can have extremely stringent bail conditions attached to police bail which then restrict them for numerous months. These can include conditions such as a curfew in night time hours, non contact with prosecution witnesses, non contact with co-defendants, not to be allowed in certain areas and not to leave the country having been required to surrender their passport. These conditions can severely curtail the freedom of a suspect who may well ultimately never be charged with any criminal offence.
The Home Secretary wishes to introduce the change following a series of high profile cases in which individuals have not been charged or have been acquitted after spending months, and in some cases years, on police bail. She said:
“While the complexity of some investigations means that it can take the police a significant period of time to assemble evidence and present it to the Crown Prosecution Service, it can be extremely stressful for individuals to be under suspicion for extended periods of time, particularly if onerous conditions are attached to their bail.”
The Home Office said a further consultation it launched would run until 15th February, leaving it very late to get the measure onto the statute book before the general election.
The consultation paper confirms that two options for how the new limit will work are under consideration. Conservative ministers want to see chief superintendents given the power to authorise an extension of police bail up to three months, a Magistrate to have the power for extensions up to a year, and the authority of a Crown Court Judge for periods longer than 12 months. The Liberal Democrats want to give suspects the opportunity of challenging a police decision to extend their bail in a Magistrates Court for periods beyond 28 days to 12 months.
Labour’s policing spokesman, Jack Dromey, welcomed the change:
“People under investigation should know as soon as possible if they are to be charged. Whilst there will be complex cases where that will not be possible within 28 days, it is right to protect those who are innocent from protracted uncertainty. However, police have told us that having fewer officers has contributed to the lengthening period of time people are being left on police bail.”