A 28-day limit on pre-charge bail comes into force today, bringing to an end the previous system which often saw suspected criminals languishing under a cloud of suspicion for months or even years.
Until now, police forces have not been subject to limits on how long they can keep a suspect on bail. But calls for change came in the wake of recent high-profile cases, in which public figures were considered to be under suspicion for long periods of time before finally being cleared and having their cases dropped. Broadcaster Paul Gambaccini was on bail for a year as part of the Operation Yewtree inquiry, set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, before his case was dropped and he was told he would not face charges over historic sex allegations.
Mr Gambaccini has previously told how he faced the “full weight of the state” for 12 months in relation to a “completely fictitious” case.
Under the new rules, senior police officers can apply for a single, three month extension to the 28-day limit. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: “Pre-charge bail is a useful and necessary tool but in many cases it is being imposed on people for many months, or even years, without any judicial oversight – and that cannot be right.
“These important reforms will mean fewer people are placed on bail and for shorter periods.
“They will bring about much-needed safeguards – public accountability and independent scrutiny – while ensuring the police can continue to do their vital work.”
Andy Ward, deputy general secretary of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said it will mean a “massive change” in custody culture within the police force. He warned the 28-day limit is unrealistic for complex investigations, saying: “Cyber-crime, for example, requires computers to be seized and equipment to be interrogated to gain evidence. The results for detailed forensic tests also take some time to come back.”
Assistant Chief Constable Darren Martland, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on pre-charge bail, said chief officers have worked closely with the Home Office and College of Policing to ensure that forces are aware of the reforms and ready to implement them.
He added: “The legislation represents a significant change in procedure but police forces and criminal justice agencies will continue to give careful consideration to the safety of victims, witnesses and the general public, which will be balanced against the rights of a suspect.”
David Tucker, Crime Lead at the College of Policing, said: “The new legislation is a significant change for policing and has sought to strike a balance between the need for police to manage investigations and not leaving a person suspected of a crime on bail for an unacceptably long period.”