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Police Bail reforms: a cosmetic gesture?

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 (which received Royal Assent on 31 January 2017) will introduce changes to the pre-charge bail setting an initial period of 28 days, authorised by a Custody Sergeant.  This period can be extended further by a superintendent, in ‘exceptional circumstances’ for a period up to a maximum of three months.  Thereafter any further extensions will need to be granted by a Magistrates' Court.  The period of which a Magistrates' Court can extend police bail rises to six months.  It is understood that these changes will come into force at the beginning of April 2017.

There are longer time limits for certain cases (e.g. SFO investigations) where if the investigation is "exceptionally complex" an authorised person (e.g. a CPS prosecutor, FCA investigator or police officer) may extend bail by six months before going to court.  Significantly, the court has the power to grant further extensions.

These reforms stem from highly publicised cases such as Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini and Neil Wallis (former executive editor of the News of the World) which highlighted the concerns of suspects remaining on long-term police bail.

In practical terms the ‘clock’ (now seemingly referred to as the ‘applicable bail period’ or ABP) stops when the police refer the case to the CPS for a charging decision and re-starts once the CPS have referred the file back to the Police.  Given the limited resources of the CPS, this review period can take some time.

Despite much publicity around these proposals at the time where it was lauded that a time limit would be imposed, there is no statutory long-stop maximum time limit for a person remaining on bail without charge. Practitioners will be aware of the difficulties in trying to raise objections to bail being extended where little or no information is available about the stage of the investigation and the manner in which it is being conducted.  Similarly, the magistrates’ courts, in their dealings with applications by the police for warrants of further detention, search warrants etc tend to rely heavily on the advice and the representations of the police (understandably perhaps where a suspect is not represented).

Apart from the lifting of any bail restrictions, the Act will also seemingly have no effect where a suspect's bail is cancelled, but an investigation continues.  Indeed, many suspects are interviewed under caution, but never arrested and placed on police bail in the first place.  If the mischief the Act seeks to address is the amount of stress and anxiety suspects (many of whom are not subsequently charged) suffer from the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are to be charged, together with the ensuing reputational damage of a long-running investigation, then the position with these suspects will remain unchanged.

It therefore remains to be seen whether these purported ‘time limits’ will have the effect of concentrating the minds of the investigators and the prosecuting authorities to hasten the process of dealing with suspects on police bail. Whilst it may have been parliament’s intention to avoid such lengthy delays this has not been reflected in this new legislation given that no upper limit is set.

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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.