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Home Office will consider a time limit on police bail

Appropriate checks and balances needed for the use of 'extraordinary police powers'

15 October 2014

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The Home Office is considering placing limits on the length of time suspects will be allowed to be held on bail.

Speaking at the College of Policing annual conference, the home secretary Theresa May, said: "I am pleased that the college is developing evidence-based guidance to bring consistency, transparency and rigour to the way in which pre-charge bail is used in criminal investigations. We must also look at statutory time limits on the use of pre-charge bail to prevent people spending months or even years on bail only for no charges to be brought."

The news follows the recent and high-profile cases of celebrities such as Paul Gambaccini, Jim Davidson and Freddie Starr who were all left on bail for several months while being investigated on charges of historic sexual abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and the subsequent Operation Yewtree.

In 2013, research by the BBC found that 3,000 people had been on bail for more than six months. There is currently no limit on how long a person can be kept on police bail before a decision on whether to charge them is made.

In response to the home secretary's speech, John Harding, criminal law partner at Kingsley Napley, commented: "Theresa May's pledge to look at the issue of indefinite pre-charge bail is to be welcomed. The Paul Gambaccini case shows only too clearly that lives are put on hold and reputations damaged by investigations that go on and on, sometimes with no eventual charges.

"This issue also affects thousands of non-celebrities every day beyond Operation Yewtree, often with a devastating impact on the individuals concerned, their families and the victims. Very restrictive conditions can be imposed during police bail which place severe limitations on individual liberty when a person has not actually been charged with an offence and in some cases never will be. It is time to change this."

Harding suggests that a judicial oversight of bail would be a practical way to improve the current system. "A scheme similar to the current custody time limits provisions is perhaps a good solution whereby a trial would be required to start within a specified period or an individual has to be released from bail restrictions," he said.

"Changes need to be made to require the police to actively progress their investigations within a certain time period, to seek evidence at the earliest stages and to ensure that sufficient resources are available for this. Mrs May is right to call for appropriate checks and balances on the use of extraordinary police powers yet at the same time to preserve a system whereby the police can do their job properly of bringing real offenders to justice," Harding added.

Law Society President Andrew Caplen said people are often left 'in the wilderness' while police decide whether they should be charged with a crime. He said he believes the limit should be set at 28 days.

"The Law Society has been calling for a statutory limit on length of time the police are able to keep suspects on bail, often with conditions, before they are charged with a criminal offence," said Caplen.

"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 complainants and witnesses. We support there being a statutory limit of 28 days, after which the police should apply to a magistrate for an extension where this can be shown to be necessary. We will carefully consider whether the detail of the review announced today coincides with our view."

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