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Bail reforms which left thousands in legal limbo to be reviewed

By Monidipa Fouzder

Pre-charge bail laws that have left thousands of suspects languishing in legal limbo will be reviewed, the government announced hours before parliament was dissolved due to next month’s general election. The Law Society, which has called for a rethink, said the review is ‘not a moment too soon’.

Pre-charge bail allows police to release a suspect from custody, usually subject to conditions, while officers continue their investigation or await a charging decision. A 28-day time limit for police bail came into force in April 2017.

The reforms were supposed to prevent people languishing for long spells under pre-charge bail. However, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association said tight police resources meant it was unrealistic to complete many investigations within 28 days or seek a bail extension. The only workaround was to release suspects under investigation. As a result, suspects face uncertainty without time limits or constraints on the police.

The association surveyed criminal defence practitioners this year to investigate the impact of the government’s reform – the first attempt to gather hard data. The 109 solicitors who responded reported a total of 6,519 cases where their client had been released under investigation in the past three months. One firm had 200 such cases. More than half of respondents had cases under police investigation which had already lasted between 18 months and two years. These included 22 cases involving rape allegations.

Police Figures obtained by law firm Hickman & Rose, published in a Law Society policy briefing last month, showed that at least 193,000 suspects were languishing in legal limbo in 2017/18. The data also revealed lengthy spells under RUI status.

The Centre for Women’s Justice made a ‘super-complaint’ drawing together what it said were failures by the police to utilise four separate legal protections that exist for the benefit of vulnerable people experiencing domestic abuse, sexual violence, harassment and stalking. These included failure to impose bail conditions where suspects are released under investigation without bail.

In its policy briefing the Society called for RUI time limits, emailing or texting the accused with updates rather than relying on a single ‘postal requisition’ letter, a central register of the number of people released under investigation and fairer remuneration for defence solicitors.

The Home Office said yesterday that it will consider updating the rules to better support police officers investigating crimes and ensure that pre-charge bail is being used where most appropriate – including where conditions are needed to protect victims and witnesses, such as in domestic abuse cases. The review will ensure pre-charge bail supports the timely progression of cases to courts, the department added.

Simon Davis, president of the Society, said: ‘In the interests of transparency, there should be a centrally-held register of numbers of people released under investigation, broken down by police authority area and offence. Current data collection is inconsistent at best. We look to contribute further to the review process moving forward.’

Solicitor Nick Barnard, an associate at London firm Corker Binning, said it was difficult to see the review concluding that the law was too onerous for the police to protect the public.

HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate is expected to publish the findings of its investigation on how police forces are managing changes to bail next year.

(Courtesy: Law Society Gazette)