One of the most frequently raised concerns we are asked to address is the inordinate length of time many of our clients in more serious cases are kept on bail whilst the police conduct their enquiries.
At present in law there is no limit to the length of time a person can spend on pre-charge bail. It is not unusual for suspects in criminal investigations to find themselves on bail for many months, if not years. In 2014 it was estimated that more than 5000 members of the public were languishing on pre-charge bail for more than six months during a police investigation.
It is a fundamental principle of criminal law that every suspect in a criminal investigation has the right to be presumed innocent. Flowing from this is the right for their case to be tried and dealt with as quickly as possible. The stress and anxiety experienced by suspects on pre-charge bail means that it can be tantamount to punishment without a trial and offends these important principles.
In response to concern from legal professionals and academics the Home Secretary, Theresa May, asked the College of Policing to look into how police manage precharge bail earlier this year. In their responses to the consultation that followed both the Law Society and the Crown Prosecution Service argued that a statutory time limit on precharge bail was not in the public interest.
On 23 March this year the Conservatives announced their policy stance on pre-charge bail. If elected to office after 7 May 2015, they intend
· to give police the power to bail suspects for up to 28 days
· to allow senior police officers to extend bail in certain circumstances up to a period of two months
· applications for bail to be extended beyond three months must be heard by a magistrate
· there will be regular scrutiny by the courts of any extension beyond the initial three months
In our view, these proposals should be welcomed. Too many innocent members of the public remain under suspicion for serious crimes for prolonged periods when they can do little to defend themselves. Giving Judges the power to monitor and review periods of precharge bail and the progress of an investigation will ensure that police bail periods are “necessary and proportionate” in the circumstances of an investigation.
There has been cross party support for a review of the law on pre-charge bail. We hope that reform of the law in this area, which is long overdue, follows whoever wins the next General Election.