It is now a year since the chair of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee called for a 28-day statutory limit on police bail, provoked (at least in part) by a BBC investigation which revealed that over 3000 people in the UK had at that time been on police bail for at least 6 months. Support came from the Howard League for Penal Reform, Liberty and – more unexpectedly – ACPO. It appeared that a campaign for reform might gain traction, and more recently the case of Freddie Starr (not charged after spending 19 months on bail) brought renewed attention to the issue.

Police bail is used when the police wish to continue investigating a suspect without detaining him/her (for which there is a time limit of 24 hours in most cases). There is no time limit on police bail, no limit on the number of times the police are entitled to “rebail” and no right afforded the suspect to apply to a court to intervene. It is not unheard of for suspects in complex fraud investigations, for example, to remain on police bail for a number of years.

The Police and Justice Act 2006 amended section 47(1A) Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, allowing the police to impose bail conditions on suspects yet to be charged. A breach of such conditions is arrestable, though not an offence in itself. There has been much disquiet over the exercise of this power, which can severely curtail the liberty of the suspect (prohibiting entry to an area, or association with others – not always narrowly defined). While the conditions must be imposed by a custody sergeant who is notionally independent from the investigation, in practice the sergeant too often acts as a rubber stamp to the investigating officer’s suggested conditions.

Pre-charge bail conditions can be challenged in the Magistrates’ Court, though no public funding is available. Nevertheless this procedure is a useful tool in the defence lawyer’s armoury; the investigators must respond and their position is generally more rigorously scrutinised than it is by the custody sergeant.

The practical application of police bail, and the power to impose conditions thereon, is a real cause for concern. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite in government for introducing protections for suspects that might be interpreted as being soft on crime.