Thousands of suspects – including some accused of serious violent crimes – are being released by police without any restrictions and potentially putting victims and the public in danger, research suggests.
The number of people being released under investigation (RUI) after being questioned by police has “dramatically increased”, 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, research carried out by the body which represents lawyers across the country suggests.
Cases are at risk of “dragging on for unlimited lengths of time” and it is replacing bail “almost entirely”, according to the society.
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.
Kay Richardson was murdered by her estranged husband Alan Martin last year after police released him under investigation.
He had a history of domestic abuse and she had reported him for rape.
Figures obtained under freedom of information laws suggested some 7,932 people were released on bail in 2016/17 by Nottinghamshire Police but this dropped to 562 in 2017/18.
Meanwhile, people released under investigation by the force ran to 4,728 in the same year.
Thames Valley Police released 13,768 suspects on bail in 2016/17 but just 379 the following year, while it released 11,053 under investigation.
In Surrey, officers released 5,280 suspects on bail in 2016/17 and 1,033 in 17/18 but released 4,788 under investigation that year.
The force also had longer investigations on average using RUI than on bail, according to the figures.
Figures indicated suspects questioned spent an average 228 days under investigation in 2017/18 as opposed to 45 days on bail, and 74 days on bail in the previous year.
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 was changed by the Government in 2017 in a bid to limit the time someone spends on bail to 28 days, offering police instead the chance to release someone under investigation for an unlimited period of time and without having to place any restrictions on them.
The move prompted the Centre for Women’s Justice to make a super complaint to the police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & 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.
The 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.
The NPCC said the figures pre-date the guidance which is “currently being implemented by forces” but officers have been told bail can still be used to protect victims and vulnerable people “where necessary and proportionate”.
Chief Constable Darren Martland, the NPCC lead on bail management, said: “The 2017 changes to bail presented significant challenges for the police service.
“They were a simplistic solution to a complex problem, and we are now beginning to understand some of the unintended consequences.
“We are concerned that a reduction in bail could mean missed opportunities to protect vulnerable people and put conditions on violent offenders that could prevent reoffending.
“At this time, there’s currently insufficient evidence to judge whether increased use of release under investigation by police puts vulnerable victims at greater risk, but we have opted to minimise any potential risk through the introduction of new guidance to police officers.
“We will continue to assess the effects of recent changes to the law and implementation and will revise the guidance if necessary.”
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.”