Thousands of suspects being released with no bail conditions
Thousands of suspects are being released by police without any restrictions and potentially putting victims and the public in danger, it has been warned.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of people being released under investigation (RUI) after being questioned by police which is leaving victims, witnesses and suspects "in limbo" and waiting months or even years for justice, the Law Society of England and Wales claims.
The RUI process is being used for a "full range of crimes" including serious offences such as murder without a proper process for assessing risk to the public, Law Society research suggests.
Under the process introduced as part of bail reforms, suspects leave custody after an arrest with no restrictions in place while they remain under investigation.
But if they were on bail, they would have to comply with conditions such as living at a certain address, not contacting particular people, or regularly visiting a police station.
The law around police bail was changed by the Government in 2017 in a bid to limit the time someone spends on bail to 28 days.
The change offered police the chance to release someone under investigation for an unlimited period of time and without having to place any restrictions on them.
Before April 2017, if the police had enquiries to conduct, suspects would be released on police bail.
This meant they had a date to come back to the police station and would likely be subject to bail conditions.
Police bail has now largely been replaced by being 'released under investigation'.
Police bail is usually restricted to those accused of serious crimes - such as serious violent or sexual offences.
The vast majority of suspects are now released under investigation.
Critics argue that the new system has not solved the problem and being released under investigation can still lead to very lengthy delays.
So what are the figures for Suffolk and Essex?
Information obtained under Freedom of Information (FoI) laws showed 867 people were released on bail in 2016/17 by Suffolk police and this dropped marginally to 832 in 2017/18.
Meanwhile, people released under investigation by the force ran to 3,426 in the same year.
Essex Police released 14,441 suspects on bail in 2016/17 but just 3,954 the following year, while it released 6,669 under investigation.
The law change in 2017 prompted the Centre for Women's Justice to make a super complaint to the police watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) in April, accusing forces of failing to use protective measures in cases of violence against females.
A month later, the "unintended consequences" of the reforms saw the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) issue fresh guidance to forces and HMICFRS to launch an overall inquiry into bail and RUI.
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Law Society concerns
The society's president Simon Davis said cuts had led under-pressure police forces to use the procedure to "buy investigative time", adding: "Suspects are left with uncertainty; victims of crime often live in fear of being confronted by the accused.
"In the interests of both justice and public safety, release under investigation must be used appropriately."
The Law Society has called on the Home Office to:
- Introduce strict time limits on RUI and ensure any extensions have senior approval.
- Create a central register of numbers of RUIs by police area, crime and date.
- Increase legal aid rates for lawyers.
- Keep suspects informed.
What do the police say?
Detective Chief Superintendent Julie Wvendth, from Joint Justice Services Command for Suffolk and Norfolk, said: "The 2017 changes to bail presented significant challenges nationally for the police service. They were a simplistic solution to a complex problem, and forces across the country are now beginning to understand some of the unintended consequences.
"Investigating officers should strive to finalise investigations within the first period of detention wherever possible. Where the complexity of a case renders lengthy investigations and therefore bail unavoidable, an investigative plan and appropriate oversight and supervision should be in place to ensure that the suspect is on bail only for the minimum period required to complete the investigation.
"The National Police Chiefs' Council issued new operational guidance this year, encouraging officers to conduct investigations as quickly as possible and use pre-charge bail to protect victims and vulnerable people when necessary and proportionate. This guidance has been welcomed by victims groups since it was introduced.
"We continue to work closely with our criminal justice partners in Suffolk to assess the effects of these recent changes to the law as well as monitoring the national sentiment on the issue."
A spokesman for Essex Police said: "The safety of victims and the wider public is at the heart of all the decisions we make in relation to pre-charge bail and release under investigation.
"We follow the guidelines set out by the National Police Chiefs Council when interpreting whether bail or release under investigation is the correct decision for any person who has been arrested.
"When making this decision we carry out a comprehensive risk assessment to decide whether conditions are justified, appropriate, proportionate and necessary.
"Our primary objective is to bring an investigation to a conclusion while the detainee is detained, where this is not possible, public safety and victim safeguarding is our primary concern.
"We regularly review our decision making processes and have a dedicated bail management team who monitor ongoing cases."
What do the Government say?
The Home Office said it would give "serious consideration" to all recommendations made by HMICFRS on the subject.
A department spokesman said: "We fully support the police in their use of pre-charge bail in cases where it is necessary and proportionate, including where bail conditions are needed to protect victims and witnesses.
"The National Police Chiefs' Council guidance, issued to police forces earlier this year, states that in cases involving high-harm crimes, such as domestic abuse and sexual violence, pre-charge bail should be seriously considered and senior detectives consulted if a suspect is released only under investigation.
"Cases where individuals are released under investigation must also be regularly reviewed and effectively managed, with both suspects and victims kept updated."