The dawn of a new year brings promise of a fairer legal system for those wrongly accused of crimes in 2015, with the possible introduction of a 28-day limit on bail periods.
Home Secretary Theresa May will launch a consultation in February into proposals which she claims will mark “the greatest reform of that legislation” in 30 years.
It comes after figures published by BBC Radio 5live showed that 71,526 people were on pre-charge bail from 40 police forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in October.
That figure included 5,480 people who had been on bail for more than six months, while one suspect had been on bail for three-and-a-half years from the Metropolitan Police.
It is quite right that the Home Secretary is tackling this major issue now, as there have been many high-profile cases over the past 18 months in which people have spent months, or even up to a year, on bail before finally facing no charge at all.
As part of my role at Neil Hudgell Solicitors as a specialist in handling claims against the police, I represent many honest, upstanding members of society who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves wrongly accused, arrested, and placed on bail.
When my clients are left on bail, their lives are effectively placed on hold.
Despite their innocence, their reputations are allowed to be further dragged through the mud by their bail – and a potential police charge – hanging over them.
Whilst the police dig around for evidence which simply isn’t there (under no pressure to bring a charge before a set deadline) families and relationships are placed under huge strain, people have difficulties with their employment, and ultimately, they are tagged by their peers as being a ‘crime suspect’.
It is simply unacceptable that people are subjected to this without the strongest of evidence against them.
The new proposals suggest a period of 28 days should be sufficient for police to gather enough evidence to be able to charge a suspect they have arrested, and that certainly seems fair.
Yes, the 28 day period may need to be extended on rare occasions, but these must only be in ‘exceptional circumstances’, through a court application, as has been suggested.
If introduced, these changes should bring about a big improvement to the legal system.
Firstly, it should sharpen the focus of police forces across the country and put pressure on them to prove guilt. No longer will they be able to arrest and bail somebody simply to tick a box on their crime records, and to give themselves some breathing space in which to try and build a case.
More importantly, for the innocently accused, it should bring about speedy justice.
Let’s not forget, a court of law asks a jury to only find a suspect guilty when they can be sure ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. A period of 28 days should be enough for the police to reach that very same position.