Unchecked bail terms in ongoing investigations have potential to put lives on hold for indefinite lengths of time. Last month, The Times reported that the Liberal Democrats are considering including a time limit on police pre-charge bail in their 2015 election manifesto. At Kingsley Napley we believe this is an issue that needs urgent attention.
We agree with Lord Macdonald, QC, the Lib Dem peer and former director of public prosecutions, when he said recently: “There is sometimes a lack of urgency in police bail cases that is very worrying. Lives are put on hold and grave reputational damage goes unchecked, sometimes for years.”
The fact there are currently no restrictions on the length of time a person can spend on police bail can create lengthy periods of uncertainty for individuals, their families and victims.
We have seen this recently in various cases within Operation Yewtree, during which celebrities such as Jim Davidson were left on bail for long periods before being told they would not face charges. However, the issue affects thousands of non-celebrities every day, often with a devastating impact on all concerned.
The Times recently cited FOI statistics from May 2013 that more than 57,000 people were on police bail at that time, with more than 3,000 of those bailed for more than six months.
No oversight, a lack of resources and an increasing trend for “reactive arrests” means individuals are often arrested before investigations are at a stage where they can be charged. Interviews under caution are used as an information-gathering tool and to aid the police in their investigations. Many investigations are complex and lengthy, taking months or even years, especially in fraud cases for example.
Very restrictive conditions can be imposed as a condition of police bail — people can be prevented from entering their homes (where there are domestic abuse allegations, for example) and businesses. Individuals can be required to submit to curfews, report regularly at a police station, reside at a certain address, surrender their passports, and be prevented from travelling and prohibited from talking to certain people. All of these place severe limitations on individual liberty when a person has not actually been charged with an offence and in some cases never will be.
Although bail conditions can be challenged at the magistrates’ court, the length of time that a person is subject to bail cannot. There is therefore no recourse for individuals waiting for lengthy investigations to be concluded and no means of forcing the police to complete them.
At Kingsley Napley we believe the time is right for change. Judicial oversight of bail is required, a scheme similar to the current custody time limits provisions perhaps. (The latter requires a trial to start within a specified period or an individual has to be released from custody.) Changes need to be made to require the police to actively progress their investigations; to seek evidence at the earliest stages and to ensure that sufficient resources are available to conduct forensic examination of computers if necessary. These types of changes will require legislation.
Given that we may end up with another coalition government in future, it is clearly a positive thing that certain senior Lib Dems are concerned about the issue of pre-charge police bail. We urge other political parties to put this on their agenda too. Judicial oversight would be a practical way to improve the current system. It would ensure appropriate checks and balances on the use of extraordinary police powers yet would still ensure the police can do their job properly of bringing offenders to justice.
This article first appeared in the Times online 9 October 2014.