Whilst the government announces a consultation into the length of time persons suspected of a criminal offence can and should remain on police bail without a charging decision being sought, Senior Officers are raising concerns about the length of time suspects are being kept in custody prior to bail or remand being considered.
Currently, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, suspects can be detained for an initial 24 hour period with Superintendants being allowed to consider authorising a further 12 hours before a decision is made or an application for a warrant of further detention is made to the Court. These are, however, maximum periods and the Custody Sergeant must ensure that all parties are acting as expeditiously as possible in investigating offences whilst a suspect is in detention. Indeed, periodic reviews are required by PACE, which states that a Superintendant must review a person’s detention within six hours of their arrival at the station, and every nine hours thereafter to ensure that the case is progressing.
If a decision is not reached within the period of detention allowed, a suspect must be bailed. Similarly, if the Superintendant is not satisfied that a person’s ongoing detention is necessary, they should be bailed. Despite these strict time limits and procedures being in place within a police Custody Suite, Senior Officers have alluded to the fact that the average time a suspect spends in custody has reached 14 hours, arguably far longer than the average case would necessitate.
Furthermore, concerns have been raised that despite there being stringent time limits upon investigations ongoing whilst a person is in detention, there are no time limits on how long a person can be kept on police bail.
Speaking at the College of Policing’s annual conference, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that the Home Office would be holding a consultation on bringing in a time limit for police bail. This follows on from a number of high profile cases, during which people were remanded on police bail for up to two years before a decision was made.
Mr Gambaccini, a BBC broadcaster arrested under Operation Yewtree, was on police bail for 12 months before being told that no further action would be taken against him; a period of time which he described afterwards as being ’12 months of trauma’. Similarly, Freddie Starr, who was also arrested in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, was on bail for 18 months before also being told that no charges would be brought against him. In fact, figures released in May 2013 indicated that at that point in time 57,000 were on police bail, 3,000 of whom had been on bail for over six months. In one case it was shown that an individual had been on police bail for three and a half years without a decision having been made.
But how long is ‘too long’? The College of Policing’s current stance is that, generally speaking, police bail should not last longer than 28 days and indeed, in 2013 Richard Atkinson, speaking as Chairman of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, called for a 28-day statutory period to be introduced. Given the complexities of certain cases and the need for forensic examination of items seized, however, Chief Constable Alex Marshall, who describes such a period as being too short, may have a point. Perhaps the six month limit proposed by the Human Rights Group, Liberty, may, as the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria suggests, be more ‘reasonable’.
If, however, such a statutory limit were to be imposed, there would be nothing to preclude the police from simply releasing a person from police custody, or technically advising them that no further action is to be taken at this stage, just to bring them back in due course once further evidence comes to light. Would that offer any more certainty to a person under investigation for a serious criminal offence than the current regime does?