Potentially significant change to release of suspects under investigation
The Times has reported (‘Update suspects on cases every month, police are told’, The Times, 15/07/2019) that National Police Chiefs’ Council had issued new guidance for suspects released under investigation (RUI).
At the time of writing, this apparent scoop has not been corroborated and the NPCC has not released new guidance. But, if correct, it could represent a significant change to the current limbo many individuals face as the unintended consequence of recent bail reforms.
In April 2017 the Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced a 28-day time limit for police pre-charge bail. This was meant to speed up police investigations after a series of high-profile cases where well-known suspects were subject to restrictive bail condition for extended periods. The police have responded to the imposition of this time pressure by routinely bypassing the bail act provisions and releasing suspects under investigation. For those released, this creates even more uncertainty and unaccountability; while victims’ groups point to the lack of bail conditions that put complainants at potential risk.
The new guidance would not address the latter but could provide some remedy to the former. For this to happen, OICs would not be able to treat such guidance as a “tick-box” exercise; they would have to engage effectively with suspects or their representatives. Most critically, they would have to inject impetus into investigations as far as they are able. The systemic problems, such as the lack of police resources, will of course still remain. In addition, the route for dissatisfied suspects to challenge the police handling of investigation will still be the costly and cumbersome judicial review process.
Finally it is worth noting, as the Press Gazette recently reported (‘Contempt risk remains for released suspects still ‘under investigation’ by police after law change’, 01/07/2019), Regulation 4 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2018. This seemingly innocuous regulation means that the reporting of a RUI suspect remains a potential strict liability contempt of court offence while an investigation remains “active” and until a custody officer tells the suspect, in writing, that the investigation is being discontinued. According to the Home Office, “Journalists can still make inquiries to the police in such cases, as they would have previously in investigations where suspects were released on bail.”
We await the detail of any new police guidance. For suspects, complainants and the press urgent clarity and reforms cannot come soon enough.