The Law Society has urged the Home Office not to let Covid-19 halt work on reforming legislation that has left thousands of suspects languishing in legal limbo.
The Home Office announced last year that it would review pre-charge bail laws and began consulting on proposals in February. Pre-charge bail allows police to release a suspect from custody, usually subject to conditions, while officers continue their investigation or await a charging decision.
Law Society president Simon Davis said in the interests of swift, fair and efficient justice, reforms must be kept on track, 'even among the fallout caused by the current pandemic. There is already a significant backlog of court cases awaiting trial. Another bottleneck at the investigative stage will risk more crime falling through the cracks of investigation and prosecution'.
Unlike bail, there are no time limits for release under investigation (RUI). Davis said consistent pressure on resources made it difficult for police to complete investigations within the 28-day bail limit set by 2017 pre-charge bail reforms.
‘In this context, it is easy to understand how the use of RUI became so widespread. It nevertheless led to an unsustainable situation in which the innocent accused are left under the cloud of suspicion for years, and victims of serious offences, such as rape and other violent crimes, are unable to seek closure - often living in fear of being confronted by the alleged perpetrator for many months or years,' he said.
In its consultation response, Chancery Lane says investigation delays are partly caused by a lack of strategic oversight.
The Society says: ‘When seeking a decision to bail a suspect, investigating officers should be required to prepare an investigation plan which is then placed on the custody record, setting out the series of tasks that are required to be done eg examine CCTV, house-to-house enquiries, DNA samples submitted, mobile phone examination etc. Then, at the end of the bail period, when an inspector is approached for an extension, he or she can see the plan, and ask “Have these tasks been completed?” If not, ask the questions “Why not? What has come out of the enquiries, what more needs to be done?” The inspector should be required, as part of their supervisory duties, to certify that they have considered how the case has progressed against the initial plan in the custody record.’
With offences against the person, the Society says delays are often caused in trying to obtain medical evidence from doctors. It suggests the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care negotiate a service level agreement, requesting NHS doctors to provide medical reports within 28 days of a request.
Other recommendations include fixed timescales for cases where a suspect is released under investigation. A sergeant can authorise 56 days authorised by a sergeant. An extension up to six months would have to be approved by a chief inspector or superintendent. Extensions up to 12 months would need court approval.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.