Sharp rise in suspects being released without bail conditions
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Tens of thousands of suspects including some accused of violent crimes are being released by police without bail restrictions, leaving victims and the public increasingly at risk, the Law Society has warned.
Figures obtained from police forces across England and Wales show the number of those released under investigation (RUI) has ballooned since the practice became legal in 2017 – resulting in suspects, victims and witnesses waiting months and even years for justice.
Without bail conditions – often requiring those under investigation to live at a particular address, avoid certain areas or people and report to a police station – being imposed, cases are being allowed to drift without fixed time limits, according to the Law Society.
The Labour MP and shadow justice minister, Yasmin Qureshi, has used parliamentary questions to expose growing delays in processing rape, sexual violence and burglary cases.
Figures show the average number of days for the Crown Prosecution Service to process rape allegations, from when the case was first referred to the CPS to completion, has lengthened from 321 in 2008-09 to 495 in 2018-19.
For sexual violence cases, CPS returns over the same period show the time from referral to finalisation has stretched from 294 to 390 days. For burglary, it has increased from 201 to 245 days.
Qureshi said: “These figures show the government’s soundbite claim that they are ‘on the side of victims’ is a cynical spin. Every extra day a case is prolonged is another day when victims have their lives placed on hold.
“Our justice system urgently needs to be properly funded so that cases can be processed and justice delivered. That means keeping our courts open, funding legal aid and recognising that access to justice is a right not a privilege.”
The problem of RUI has been identified before, but the Law Society survey, acquired through freedom of information requests, is more wide-ranging and draws on replies from 31 police authorities.
RUI was introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The number of suspects freed on bail has decreased dramatically, appearing to have been replaced almost entirely by RUI in some police authorities:
• In Thames Valley, the number of suspects released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768. By 2017-18, this had fallen to 379, as the number released under investigation rose to 11,053.
• In Nottinghamshire, 7,932 people were released on bail in 2016-17 but the number dropped to 562 in 2017-18. The number of suspects released under investigation by police reached 4,728 in the same year.
• In Surrey, officers released 5,280 suspects on bail in 2016-17 and 1,033 in 2017-18, but released 4,788 under investigation that year.
The Law Society 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.”
Jenny Wiltshire, the head of general crime at the law firm Hickman & Rose, said: “I obtained these statistics because I am very concerned about the impact on our creaking criminal justice system of releasing thousands of suspects under investigation.
“RUI was intended to end the scandal of accused people, many of whom are innocent of any crime, having to wait months and sometimes years before being able to clear their names.
“But in reality, it has made the situation far worse. Not only are people released under investigation for longer than they were kept on police bail, but the absence of proper scrutiny means police do not keep suspects updated as to the progress of an investigation.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said the figures predated the guidance currently being implemented by forces, but officers had been told bail can still be used to protect victims and vulnerable people “where necessary and proportionate”.
Darren Martland, the chief constable of Cheshire police and NPCC lead for 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.
“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.”
UK criminal justice
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