Victims and suspects left in limbo after changes to police bail – new research

Tens of thousands of suspects are being released without bail conditions for unlimited periods, according to new research by the Law Society of England and Wales.

Suspects, victims and witnesses are left waiting for months or even years for justice.

With no fixed time limit, cases can drag on for unlimited lengths of time. There’s no requirement to update the suspect if or when the case will progress.

Unlike bail, neither are conditions applied - such as requiring the suspect to live at a particular address, avoid certain areas/people or report to a police station.

RUI is being used for a full range of crimes; including indictable offences such as murder. There is not a standardised process for assessing risk to the public.

Figures for 17/18 from 31 police authorities show that many are releasing a majority of suspects under investigation.

Law Society of England and Wales president, Simon Davis, said: “Thousands of suspects are being released under police investigation. With no fixed time limit, cases can take months or even years to go to court.

“Suspects are left with uncertainty; victims of crime often live in fear of being confronted by the accused.”

Key findings

  • The use of release under investigation (RUI) has increased dramatically since changes were placed on the use of bail in 2017.
  • The number of suspects released on bail has decreased dramatically – appearing to have been replaced almost entirely by RUI in some police authorities. In Thames Valley, the number released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768. But in 2017-2018 this fell to 379, as the number released under investigation rose to 11053.
  • The average length of investigation is much longer than police bail. In Surrey, there is an average of 228 days. There’s no limit on how long investigations can last – and no requirement to give updates if or when the case will progress. This can cause much anxiety and distress for those involved – including victims.

Davis continued: “Decades of cuts have left the system at breaking point. Officers are struggling to investigate cases expeditiously because of staff reductions.

“They may have trouble keeping pace with the level of arrests and interviews, and the process for acquiring witness statements and forensics - both digital and standard - can be very time consuming.

The under-pressure Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) insist on cases being trial ready before making charging decisions. As a result, police are using this procedure to buy investigative time.

“Prosecution figures are at their lowest in a decade.”

Case study 1

A solicitor had a client who was released under investigation for two separate knife crime murders. This individual has also been released under investigation for two separate knife robbery offences. During the time he has been subject to RUI he was also charged with a separate S18 GBH knife crime and has undergone a Crown Court trial.

“In the interests of both justice and public safety, release under investigation must be used appropriately,” said Davis.

“This means the introduction of strict time limits, a consistent application of risk assessment processes, and centrally-held data for all suspects under investigation.”

He warned: “Although investment in police and prosecutors is welcome, it cannot be in and of itself the solution.

“Investment is needed across the board – particularly to the courts and the defence. The Ministry of Justice has lost a quarter of its budget since 2010.

“Simply pushing more suspects through the system risks creating a bottleneck effect. Rather than reducing crime, this allow more to fall through the cracks of investigation and prosecution.”

Case study 2

A young woman was arrested for cannabis possession in a prison visiting area and was later found to have 10 tablets of MDMA at her home address. As this was a simple case with the evidence quickly available, it could have been resolved quickly in court.

However, the individual was released under investigation and the case did not come to court until 22 months later. In this time the individual had assumed the case would go nowhere and had started a family.

By the point of the trial, the judge felt that, given the circumstances, there was little he could do other than impose a Community Order.

Notes to editors

The Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced an initial maximum period of 28 days for police bail. This can then be extended up to a period of 3 months on the authority of a police officer at Superintendent level or above. In exceptional circumstances this can be extended yet further by a Magistrates’ Court.

2. The following Freedom of Information requests were submitted to all police authorities in England and Wales by Hickman & Rose Solicitors:

  • "How many people did your force release on pre-charge police bail between 3rd April 2016 and 2nd April 2017? How many people did your force release on pre-charge police bail between 3rd April 2017 and 2nd April 2018?" 31 authorities responded to this request.
  • "How many people did your force release on pre-charge police bail between 3rd April 2016 and 2nd April 2017? How many people did your force release on pre-charge police bail between 3rd April 2017 and 2nd April 2018?" 13 authorities responded to this request.

See the full data from respondents

Download our paper: Release Under Investigation: August 2019

Full recommendations:

  • Ensure release under investigation is used appropriately: The police need to ensure decisions around whether to place someone under bail or RUI are necessary and proportionate.
  • Time limits on release under investigation: Strict time limits must be introduced to RUI, with senior approval required to extend those time limits, mirroring the bail requirements.
  • Better ways to update the accused: Police forces should use additional methods to contact the accused, such as email and/or a text message in case the individual has moved or is away from home.
  • Better data collection: There should be a central register of the numbers of people released under investigation, broken down by police authority area, by the crime the individual has been accused of, and the date of when the individual is placed under RUI.
  • Fairer remuneration for defence solicitors: The Law Society has long been calling for an increase in legal aid rates paid to criminal defence practitioners.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Liam McCafferty | 020 8049 4028

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