The report states that based on freedom of information requests (to which 34 of 44 forces replied to) there are currently over 57,000 people held on police bail. It goes on to add that over 3000 have been waiting for a decision on charges for over 6 months. It then cites the case of Neil Wallis (former News of the World Executive) who was on bail for 19 months before an NFA (no further action) decision was made. It also highlights one particular case in the Met where the suspect has been on bail for 3 years and 8 months.
Richard Atkinson is chair of the Criminal Law Committee for The Law Society and is quoted as saying people are often ‘left in the wilderness’ whilst a decision is made on whether to charge them with a crime or not. He calls for a 28 day statutory maximum for bail. Anything longer than this should be approved by a magistrates court. The text of the report is quite direct. However, if you scroll down the BBC article, there is a short video of Mr Atkinson being interviewed where he puts his case a little better. During the interview he recognises that some issues are unavoidable such as forensic examination of computers. He also mentions a case of a theft of a pedal cycle that took 7 months. He claims that ‘some’ officers are essentially lazy and defer matters to later dates that could be concluded easily. He ends by saying that if after 4 weeks, the police are not in a position to make a decision, then they should be prepared to justify to the court why further bail is needed.
There has, as one would expect, been some reaction to this on twitter. Some endorse Mr Atkinson’s viewpoint and others claim that it’s a ridiculous request. I find myself falling into the latter.
If people are on bail for too long then the first priority is to understand why. The causes of the situation need to be identified. Once this is achieved a review of how best to address the bottleneck is necessary. A solution will then release the pressure, reduce the need for lengthy bail dates and streamline the process.
If, on the other hand, the 28 day suggestion were to be applied without first identifying the source of the problem then it would simply add another hurdle to an already overburdened process. Outcome… even more delays.
So what causes delays that lead to lengthy bail dates? Each case has to be judged on its own merits. However, there are some common factors;
- Forensic enquiries
- Witness availability
- CCTV evidence retrieval/viewing/copying
- Officers leave / sickness / courses
- Data requests to ISP’s and social media providers
- Officers diverted to other duties – Lack of officers
- CPS requests
- Complex banking requests
- Previous convictions of foreign nationals
- International enquiries
- Suspects failing to answer bail
- High tech eForensics (computer examination etc)
The above are just a few and this blog would go on forever if I provided examples for each and every one. There are countless other reasons why a case gets delayed.
I make no excuse for lazy officers. There are some out there and they need to have some intrusive supervision. The majority though simply do the best they can with the tools they have available to them and the time they have.
Crime is changing. There are still shoplifters, assaults and drunk and disorderly matters but we also have complex investigations that are computer based and take some considerable time. eForensics are a very common bottleneck. If we make an arrest for indecent images and find some printed a material then we have something to go on. Should we therefore charge this person straight away or should we seize and examine any computers they own? The hard drive may be littered with content that constitutes far more serious offences. The examination of said computer takes time. It doesn’t take 12 months but with a backlog it may not get looked at for 10. The initial answer then is to throw more resources at eForensics. However, ignoring that this is a unique specialist field, throwing staff at one priority without any thought is likely to lead to a deficiency elsewhere.
A comment I saw today in support of the 28 day suggestion was that it would ‘focus the minds of Chief officers to resource properly’. This is akin to beating with a big stick. The solution to a problem is ensuring the staff and resources are effectively placed, with the right system of operation to ensure efficiency. Not adding another layer of bureaucracy and review. This simply adds to the bottleneck.
What was totally missed in the article and Mr Atkinson’s interview is the victim. I don’t like long bail dates. Sometimes I have to give them (eForensics) but otherwise I’m quite firm and try to ensure case progression. Sometimes though, even with the best will in the world, delays are inevitable. Whilst a quick conclusion to a case is in the interests of everyone I found it rather sad that yet again the victim was being put on the back seat.
I think that a review of bail processes may well be appropriate. It should, if done correctly, lead to a new way of managing suspects that allows security of the suspect, protection for the victim (or potential future victims) and is independently scrutinised and endorsed.
With this in mind I would probably support, after proper evaluation, a review process. However, here is the rub with what is proposed today. What process and system review was used by The Law Society to come up with this 28 day number? Is it based on a thorough understanding of the bottleneck, effective use of resources by all CJS partners and a realistically achieved solution or has it just been plucked out of the air without any evidence at all? I suspect the latter. If The Law Society want to produce evidence that proves 28 days is the perfect time scale I would be delighted to read it.
If the target were set at 28 days but the processes cannot normally achieve it then extensions will therefore be routinely applied for at the court. This simply generates waste and cost.
I don’t dismiss the suggestion made by The Law Society completely. However, I question how they came up with this figure. I suspect it has been a tail on the donkey type exercise and this is not a solution with any credibility.
The 28 day suggestion without any evidence and research to support it is simply bailing out the boat instead of trying to deal with the hole in the hull.