Reform introduced to prevent suspects being left on bail indefinitely without charge looks likely to change following criticism from women’s rights groups that it puts alleged witnesses and victims at risk.
The relaxation was introduced in 2017 restricting pre-charge bail to a maximum of 28 days save for exceptional circumstances (see here). It was intended to prevent suspects being left for long periods under bail conditions without being charged. The change has led to a dramatic increase in the number of suspects being released ‘under investigation’, often without any conditions (see here). In April, the Centre for Women’s Justice filed a super-complaint in relation to the bail reform.
Nogah Ofer, lawyer from the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: ‘The norm is for interview on voluntary attendance, rather than arrest, across the board on domestic violence and rape. From the perspective of victims and survivors, it is almost like the accused is being invited in for a chat and is not really a suspect.’
According to Ofer: ‘It used to be absolutely standard in every rape case that the suspect had bail conditions not to contact the victim, and not to go to her address. But now it is just easier for the police not to use bail. The whole reason for bail reform was to speed up investigations but in fact it has had the opposite effect.’
In September 2019, women’s rights groups and Labour MP, Sarah Champion, wrote a letter to the government warning that the bail relaxation was putting potential victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse ‘unnecessarily exposed to reprisals from suspects’.
A freedom of information request revealed that use of bail dramatically reduced following the relaxation. For example, in Thames Valley the number of suspects released on bail in 2016-17 was 13,768. In 2017-18, this fell to 379, whilst the number released ‘under investigation’ rose to 11,053.
The Home Office announced this week that it would launch a review into bail laws, which will be followed by a consultation next year.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel commented: ‘I’m committed to giving the police the support they need to protect the public from harm, as well as supporting victims and witnesses. This review will ensure we put the needs of victims first.’