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March 20th 2019

Civil Liberties

‘Under investigation’ – the injustice of police leaving more people under suspicion long-term

Leanne Stephenson

Leanne Stephenson

Solicitor, Civil Liberties

‘Under investigation’ – the injustice of police leaving more people under suspicion long-term

One thing that I am constantly reminded of in my role as a civil liberties lawyer is the huge impact being arrested has on an individual – especially those who are eventually found not to have broken the law in any way.

One thing that I am constantly reminded of in my role as a civil liberties lawyer is the huge impact being arrested has on an individual – especially those who are eventually found not to have broken the law in any way.

Being arrested can have a very damaging impact not only on the lives of the person directly involved, but also their families.

Effectively, the finger of suspicion with regards to wrongdoing is pointing in their direction for as long as investigations are ongoing, and there is little they can do about.

Often in such situations, lives are put almost completely on hold.

People can find themselves suspended from work until matters are resolved (particularly when police investigations are linked to a serious offence), and they can find their relationships and close friendships affected.

On occasions those under investigation will eventually be proven innocent and told they are to face no action at all.

Whilst it would be unrealistic to expect police forces never to arrest or question somebody who was not the guilty party in their bid to solve crimes or provide protection to the public, it is entirely realistic to expect police forces to reach firm conclusions in a reasonable amount of time.

According to recent reports, people are currently being left under suspicion, without any charges being made against them, longer than ever.

Police must act quicker as weight of suspicion increases with time

The Government took action to address this issue two years ago, when rules were changed to limit police forces to only being able to keep a suspect on pre-charge bail for a maximum of 28 days, unless there were exceptional circumstances.

It came as the average length of time someone was held on police bail before being charged or released had stretched to 90 days.

In some cases people were left living under a cloud of suspicion for much longer periods – even more than a year – before eventually being cleared of any wrongdoing.

Now, it has been reported that the situation has not improved.

In fact, it has worsened, as suspects are now often being ‘released under investigation’ rather than placed on police bail, and left in this situation for an average of 139 days – almost five months.

According to a report in The Telegraph, in 2016 suspects in Surrey spent an average of 74 days on pre-charge bail awaiting a decision on their case, but since the new system of releasing suspects under investigation was brought in, that has increased to an average of 228 days.

In the Cambridgeshire force region, the length of time it to reach a decision has increased from an average of 57 to 155 days, whilst in Suffolk it has reportedly rose from 54 days to 137.

This ‘released under investigation’ status is intended to carry less stigma, something I feel is very disputable given the threat of prosecution is still hanging over the individual involved.

In fact, I would say that waiting for a decision when either on bail or released under investigation carries the same level of stress.

I’d also say that the same level of suspicion hangs over an individual no matter what terminology is used, the weight of which only increases over the passing of time, as in the minds of many, there is ‘no smoke without fire’.

Without doubt, a lengthy period of time ‘under investigation’ has a negative impact on an individual’s community standing. How can it not?

Report is consistent with cases being handled by civil liberties specialists

Certainly this report, which said more than 80 per cent of criminal suspects are now ‘released under investigation’ rather than on police bail, is consistent with what our team of civil liberties lawyers have been seeing at Hudgell Solicitors.

We are representing a number of people who have been left in limbo waiting for the police to make decisions on cases and have simple been told they are still “under investigation”.

Despite significant periods of time passing, there appears no end in sight for them.

Too often successful policing is judged too simply and is based on the number of crimes solved.

In reality, successful policing is so much more.

Prosecutions must not come at the cost of infringing the rights of law-abiding members of the public by making them endure long periods wrongfully under suspicion, without evidence to charge them for the offences their names are being linked to.

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