Home Office accused on bail ruling

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The Independent Online

The Home Office should have acted sooner to bring forward emergency legislation to reverse a controversial legal ruling which overturns 25 years of police practice, Labour said today

The criticism came as both ministers and the courts scrambled to address the ruling which means officers can no longer bail suspects for more than four days without either charging or releasing them.

Policing Minister Nick Herbert said emergency legislation would be brought forward to reverse the ruling and enable officers to do their jobs without "one hand tied behind their back", while the highest court in the land agreed to hear the case on July 25.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the Home Office was "clearly in chaos".

"The Home Secretary is still failing to sort the problem," she said.

"Shocking delays and Home Office incompetence are still putting investigations at risk, and jeopardising justice for victims.

"Ministers confirmed that the Home Office has known about this for over a month yet they still haven't finished the emergency legislation, and the police still don't know what they are supposed to do with suspects today.

"That means thousands of ongoing investigations are being jeopardised right now."

She added: "The catalogue of incompetence is deeply worrying.

"A six-week delay since the initial judgment, a two-week delay since the written judgment and a week after ministers were told, the public and the police are still in the dark about what is going on.

"We cannot, must not and will not ask the police to do their work with one hand tied behind their backs."

Mr Herbert admitted that officials were told of the oral judgment in May, but its full impact only became clear when the written judgment was handed down on June 17 and ministers were alerted on June 24.

The row started when district judge Jonathan Finestein, sitting at Salford Magistrates' Court, refused a routine application from Greater Manchester Police for a warrant of further detention of murder suspect Paul Hookway on April 5.

High Court judge Mr Justice McCombe confirmed the ruling in a judicial review on May 19, which meant time spent on police bail counted towards the maximum 96-hour limit of pre-charge detention, after which Home Office officials were told about the problems.

The Supreme Court will now hear the case on July 25.

Mr Herbert told MPs: "The police believe that the judgment will have a serious impact on their ability to investigate crime.

"In some cases it will mean that suspects who would normally be released on bail are detained for longer. It is likely that in most forces there will not be enough capacity to detain everybody in police cells.

"In other cases it risks impeding the police to such an extent that the investigation will have to be stopped because the detention time has run out.

"The judgment will also affect the ability of the police to enforce bail conditions."

The emergency legislation will "clarify the position and provide assurance that the police can continue to operate on the basis they have been operating for many years", he said.

"We are also seeking further urgent advice on how to mitigate practical problems caused by the court's decision in this interim period.

"This judgment upsets a careful balance which has stood for a quarter of a century and impedes the police from doing their job. That is why it must be reversed."

The common practice in most major inquiries of releasing suspects on bail and calling them back for questioning weeks later is "pretty much a dead duck" following the ruling, police chiefs said.