Suspects, victims and witnesses left waiting years for justice and the public put at risk as tens of thousands of suspects are being released without bail conditions for unlimited periods, finds new research by the Law Society.
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.
Police use of the release under investigation (RUI) procedure has ‘increased dramatically since changes were placed on the use of bail in 2017’, the Law Society has warned, with police authorities releasing the ‘majority’ of suspects under investigation.
Data collated by the law firm Hickman & Rose and referred to by the society in its research reveals that in Thames Valley, the number of people released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768 but in 2017-2018 this fell to 379, a decrease of 97%. The number released under investigation was 11,053. In London, the number released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 67,838 but in 2017-2018 this fell to 9,881, a decrease of 85%. The number released under investigation was 46,674.
Simon Davis, president of the Law Society, said: ‘Decades of cuts have left the system at breaking point. Officers are struggling to investigate cases expeditiously because of staff reductions. The under-pressure Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) insist on cases being trial ready before making charging decisions. As a result, police are using [the RUI] procedure to buy investigative time. Prosecution figures are at their lowest in a decade.’
RUI is being used for a ‘full range of crimes’, the society’s research has found, including serious and violent offences such as murder.
Concerns about RUI usage raised by the Law Society include the fact that there is ‘no standardised process for assessing risk to the public’ and, without bail conditions being imposed such as requiring the suspect to live at a certain address or not to contact certain people, ‘defendants released under investigation can contact their alleged victims or potential partners in crime without restriction, can leave the country or commit further crimes’.
As reported on the Justice Gap (here), the Centre for Women’s Justice submitted a super-complaint to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary earlier this year which argued that following the change to bail ‘most rape suspects’ were now being released without bail conditions ‘which means no protections for complainants’.
The Society claims in its briefing that the ‘prevalence of examples’ of police not putting people on bail in cases where the defendant could be a risk to the public suggests that ‘police are not assessing the appropriateness of the use of RUI or bail for each case, and are instead making decisions based on the amount of time they think will be needed to build evidence for a case’.
The research also revealed that the length of investigation in cases where police use RUI is ‘much longer’ than police bail, and suspects and victims are left in limbo for long periods of time with no updates from the police. Examples cited by the Law Society of the RUI process taking a number of months or years includes a rape case involving a 14 year old complainant, in which the suspect was released under investigation, that took four years after the alleged offence to reach court and a ‘simple’ drugs possession case with ‘evidence quickly available’ in which, again, the suspect was released under investigation, that took 22 months to reach court.
More than eight out of 10 solicitors surveyed by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) in May this year said the police do not provide an explanation for the length of time the RUI process takes.
According to the same survey, 98% of solicitors said delays in an investigation have impacted on their client’s mental health, 99% of solicitors said delays in an investigation have impacted on their client’s family life and 100% of solicitors surveyed said delays in an investigation impacted on their client’s employment status.
Recommendations from the Law Society to address the current issues with the RUI process include introducing strict time limits, a central register of the numbers of people released under investigation and ensuring release under investigation is used appropriately and is informed by the potential risk to the public.
Darren Martland, the chief constable of Cheshire police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for bail management, told the Guardian, that the 2017 changes to bail presented ‘significant challenges for the police service’. ‘They were a simplistic solution to a complex problem, and we are now beginning to understand some of the unintended consequences,’ he said. ‘At this time, there’s currently insufficient evidence to judge whether increased use of release under investigation by police puts vulnerable victims at greater risk, but we have opted to minimise any potential risk through the introduction of a new guidance to police officers.’