The Home Office has been accused of going back on a promise to tackle the “excessive duration” of police bail, after new figures showed that more than 3,000 people have waited six months for a decision on charges.
More than 57,000 suspects are currently on police bail, according to statistics obtained from police forces under the Freedom of Information Act.
One 45-year-old man has been waiting more than three-and-a-half years to find out if he will be charged, having been arrested and bailed in October 2009 by the Metropolitan Police on suspicion of fraud. He is still on police bail and is back in court in August.
The Independent can disclose that the problem has become worse in the past two years since Home Office minister Baroness Browning told campaigners the Government would address the issue.
Speaking in the House of Lords in 2011, Baroness Browning said she had been briefed about the “excessive duration of police bail in some cases and about unduly onerous conditions attached to the bail”. She indicated that the government would begin consulting on reforms later that year.
Today, The Law Society said the Home Office appeared to have forgotten about the reform assurance.
Richard Atkinson, chairman of the society's Criminal Law Committee, called on the government to use fast-tracked primary legislation to introduce a 28-day statutory maximum period for those held on police bail.
Mr Atkinson said extensions of police bail should involve police using magistrates' courts to explain where investigations were at, and why a period beyond 28 days was necessary - as they do now in applications for additional detention time.
James Welch, the legal director of Liberty, said that although police bail was a vital tool in the police's armoury, the lack of any time limit meant “lives are being put on hold, and days disrupted by burdensome bail conditions with no end in sight”. He added: “A reasonable statutory backstop would end the uncertainty and fear of having the threat of prosecution hanging over your head indefinitely.”
Chris Eyre, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said police bail was “an essential tool in securing justice.” He said the process allowed investigators to explore every possible avenue, while those arrested “need not remain in custody”.
However, the Police Federation, which represents 140,000 officers, said the growing numbers affected by police bail were not being helped by cuts in force budgets of about 20 per cent.
Steve White, the federation's vice-chair, said officers were increasingly being forced to choose between dealing with increased caseloads of people on bail, or sending officers out to patrol the streets.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We continue to keep police bail provisions under review to ensure they strike the right balance between protecting an individual's right to civil liberty and allowing police to carry out thorough criminal investigations.”
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