Priti Patel is planning a u-turn on controversial 2017 bail reforms following pressure from women’s groups over concerns that suspects were being released without restrictions. Earlier this week a public consultation on pre-charge bail reform was announced by the government in the wake of a backlash against the use of release under investigation (RUI).
As previously reported by The Justice Gap (here), since April 2017 police forces have faced a maximum period of 28 days for police bail which can only be extended in exceptional circumstances, meaning anyone who the police intend to investigate beyond this period can be released under investigation, without any conditions and without any time limit.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that she was ‘committed to giving a voice to victims and providing the police with the support they need to protect the public from harm’. ‘The public consultation forms a central part of this review, which will help ensure the needs of victims are put first and the police can investigate crimes effectively and swiftly,’ she said.
Adina Claire, the acting chief executive of Women’s Aid also welcomed the ‘much-needed consultation’. ‘At Women’s Aid, we’ve been calling to reverse the pre-charge bail reforms introduced in 2017, as these restrictions on the use of bail can leave survivors unprotected while they wait for their perpetrator to face justice,’ she said. ‘It is now essential that survivor voices are heard as part of this consultation, and reforms are swiftly put in place to protect their safety.’
Proposals include removing the presumption against pre-charge bail which would mean that police be under a duty to use it only when necessary and proportionate; and raising the initial period of pre-charge bail from 28 days to 60 or 90 days. The consultation will also gather views from those who had been subjected to RUIs and victims to see how the current system can be improved.
The Law Society recently published report that police use of RUI procedure had ‘increased dramatically’ with police authorities releasing the ‘majority’ of suspects under investigation. ‘For the past year, we have warned of a major public scandal brewing – so proposals for reform of pre-charge bail and release under investigation are welcome,’ said Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales. ‘We look forward to contributing fully.’
The number of suspects released on bail had drastically decreased with evidence of some police authorities almost entirely replacing bail with RUIs. For example, the number released on bail in Thames Valley between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768. In 2017-2018 this fell to 379, as the number of RUIs rose to 11053.
Miller said that the initial hope was that the 2017 Act, ‘though flawed, sought to introduce greater efficiency to police investigations by limiting the use of pre-charge bail and setting deadlines’. However, research also found that the average length of investigation was, and still is, much longer than police bail. In Surrey, this was an average of 228 days.
With no limit on how long investigations can last and no requirements to give updates about the progress of a case, this creates anxiety and distress for both suspects and victims who are often in legal limbo, waiting for months and in some instances for years for justice.
Miller continued: ‘But officers often struggle to investigate cases expeditiously because of under-resourcing. They have trouble keeping pace with the level of arrests and interviews, and the process for acquiring witness statements and forensics – both digital and standard – can be very time consuming. There are often delays to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) making a charging decision.’ The Law Society is calling for ‘strict time limits, a consistent application of risk assessment, and centrally-held data for all suspects under investigation’.
‘Years of underfunding has left our criminal justice system at breaking point; it simply does not have the resources to function effectively,’ said Miller. Criminal Bar Association chair, Caroline Goodwin QC, called for a ‘swift end’ to the RUI system. At the all-party parliamentary group on legal aid, she said ‘It’s no excuse [to say] forensic matters take so much longer. We live in a digital age. The simple answer – invest.’