Bail is changing; so should police investigations

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police  - WALES NEWS SERVICE

Today, the manner in which the police grant bail before a suspect is charged will change radically. This is a good thing. For too long, thousands of people have been placed on bail for excessive periods – waiting for many months, sometimes years, to hear whether they will actually face charges. This is wrong, for the simple and oft-cited reason that justice delayed is justice denied.

But there is more to it than that. In some high-profile cases, the very act of extended bail has come to seem like the police’s chief investigatory tactic: rather than build credible cases based on inspection, evidence and fact, they have preferred to inflict long periods of bail upon their suspects – often accompanied by significant publicity – to see if allegations are lent credence by new witnesses coming forward.

Paul Gambaccini Credit: Andrew Crowley/Andrew Crowley

This was particularly egregious during inquiries into allegations of historical sexual abuse. The broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, for example, accused prosecutors of a “witch-hunt” after he was arrested and placed on bail for a year, before the case against him was eventually dropped. He lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in earnings during this period, and described himself as “human flypaper”, hung out to see if abuse charges would eventually stick.

Most people would describe this treatment as unfair. Reputations are ruined. And when, years down the line, police operations are shelved with considerably less fanfare than they were opened, the good name of our justice system itself is besmirched.

Inevitably, the police and Crown Prosecution Service have suggested that the changes will raise significant challenges in complex cases, for example those in which computer files have been seized and large quantities of data need to be examined. But it is important to note that terror cases will be exempt from the new rules. And, ultimately, this is a serious response to what has been a serious problem. Home Office statistics suggest that 4,000 people each year wait more than 12 months to discover if they will face charges. That figure represents a systemic failing in the way the police and CPS are going about their work. A brisk corrective has long been needed. That corrective is now being applied, and should lead to a welcome improvement, both in the way suspects are treated and the way police and the CPS build their cases.

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