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April 3rd 2017

Andrew Petherbridge

New bail length restrictions will make police forces act quicker and offers more protection to the wrongly accused

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Lawyer and Head of Civil Liberties

New bail length restrictions will make police forces act quicker and offers more protection to the wrongly accused

It is entirely right for new restrictions to be placed on police forces with regards to the length of time they can place people on bail as they investigate alleged crimes.

It is entirely right for new restrictions to be placed on police forces with regards to the length of time they can place people on bail as they investigate alleged crimes.

For far too long a lack of restriction has enabled police forces to bide their time as they seek to gather evidence on an individual or group of people.

These people can often eventually be proven to be entirely innocent, but unfortunately little regard has been paid until now to the damage lengthy and slow-paced police investigations does to their reputations and lives.

Our court system is held up on being ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but try telling that to someone who has been on bail – with limitations placed on their life for weeks or perhaps months – when they have been totally innocent.

From today, a new 28-day limit on pre-charge bail comes into effect as part of a government move to end the “injustice” to individuals kept under a cloud of suspicion for excessive periods.

It will still possible for police forces to secure an extension beyond the initial 28-day bail period when it is deemed appropriate and necessary, but it can no longer be done as a matter of course, just because evidence is still to stack up.

Extensions of three months can be authorised by a senior police officer at superintendent level or above, and in exceptional circumstances, where the police need to keep an individual on bail for longer, they will have to apply to a magistrate.

That is only right. It means forces must have genuine reasons for extending bail long term, and decisions to do so will come under full scrutiny.

This is a step forward in terms of providing innocent people greater protection against the damage false accusations can do to their lives.

Change welcomed by broadcaster Paul Gambaccini after a year on bail over allegations of abuse

Broadcaster Paul Gambaccini has backed the new 28-day bail limit after spending a year on bail before allegations against him were dropped and he was told he would not be charged over historical allegations of sex abuse.

Gambaccini has previously told how he faced the “full weight of the state” for 12 months in relation to a “completely fictitious” case.

His case, and that of other famous people wrongly accused, has provided the perfect example of the reputational damage done by this ‘injustice’ of bail being allowed to hang over the heads of the innocent.

This is a situation sadly repeated across UK police forces, and even though cases of those not famous may not be dragged through the newspaper headlines, it is estimated that more than 400,000 people are placed on pre-charge bail every year.

That means they are released from custody, potentially subject to conditions, while officers continue their inquiries. Whoever this happens to, whether in the public spotlight or not, can find their lives effectively placed on hold.

Home secretary Amber Rudd says bail has been ‘imposed on people for many months, or even years, without any judicial oversight’, adding that the changes will bring about ‘much-needed safeguards, public accountability and independent scrutiny’. I entirely agree.

Andy Ward, deputy general secretary of the Police Federation of England and Wales, has admitted it will bring a “massive change” in custody culture – and for me that speaks volumes itself. It had become a ‘culture’.

It is perhaps not surprising that he claimed the 28-day limit to be ‘unrealistic’ for complex investigations, but that is something we all understand and accept. Provisions are in case in such cases for forces to apply for bail extensions.

However, bail being used to simply give police more time – without regard to the damage being done to the reputations and lives of those under suspicion – simply had to stop.

Our law says innocent until proven guilty, not guilty by association while police investigate.

Sadly, for many, this has been allowed to be the case for too long.

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