Three Supreme Court justices are to convene in an unusual emergency session today to consider imposing a stay on a ruling that has caused alarm to police and ministers in equal measure. The judgement in question was initially handed down by a Salford district judge and then upheld by the High Court in May, but its implications were only appreciated when the full written version reached the Home Office last month.
The case concerned a murder suspect who claimed that the Greater Manchester Police had breached a statutory 96-hour limit on the length of time a suspect may be detained or bailed without being charged or released. In deciding in his favour, the judges overturned a quarter of a century of police practice, during which the 96 hours were interpreted as cumulative rather than consecutive. The ruling made the suspect a free man – and potentially not just him, but the other 90,000 or so people currently on police bail, too.
The prospect of so many suspects being released from their bail conditions terrifies not just the police – who would need to keep many more people in custody and accelerate their evidence-gathering – but a government always fearful of being described of being "soft on crime". Home Office ministers promise emergency legislation, but with the summer recess at hand, there is no guarantee that new provisions would be in place in time. Today's application for a stay, being brought to the Supreme Court by the Greater Manchester Police, is the next best thing.
This rush to prevent thousands of suspects running free – and save blushes all round – however, risks obscuring the underlying issue. Why did the law set a limit of 96 hours at all, if this was designed to be stretched out almost indefinitely? Perhaps, rather than trying to bring the letter of the law into line with police practice, MPs and judges should look at it the other way round. The interpretation applied hitherto practically encourages lax procedures on the part of the police and weights the balance of advantage against a suspect who has not yet even been charged. Discomfiting the Salford judgment may have been, but that does not make it wrong.