Lincolnshire Talks: Should time limits be placed on police bail?

A Lincoln teen has claimed that conditions of a lengthy police bail have robbed him of his education and family life, sparking a raging debate over suspects’ freedoms. But should time limits and greater scrutiny be put on prolonged police investigations?

Lincolnshire Police have defended their reputation for the length of time suspects are kept on police bail after MP for Lincoln Karl McCartney attacked what he called an “understaffed and underfunded investigation” in the House of Commons.

“Put through hell”

Pre-charge bail is where a suspect is released without being charged, but must return to the police station at any given time. In some cases conditions are attached to the bail, allowing investigators to protect potential victims and preserve evidence.

There is currently no limit on how long a suspect can be held on pre-charge bail.

The Lincoln teen appealed to MP Karl McCartney for help.

The Lincoln teen appealed to MP Karl McCartney for help.

An 18-year-old from Lincoln, who asked not to be named, told The Lincolnite how his arrest in August 2015 and subsequent bail conditions meant he could not return to school, where he was a “straight A student”.

The ongoing investigation, details of which were not disclosed, has seen police bail extended numerous times by investigating officers.

The conditions also state he is unable to be in the presence of anyone under 16 without supervision – something he says has affected his relationship with two younger sisters and left him and his family with mental anguish.

He said:

“Bail has ruined my life and it’s ruined my education.

“I’m supposed to be at university right now. The whole thing has put my family under a lot of stress.

“There has been no admission of guilt throughout the entire process and I’ve even been signed off by social workers who said there are no problems, but there has been no progress on the investigation after over a year.

“I’ve been brought in and released on bail again about nine times and we’re getting nothing from investigators.

“The thing that upset me the most was not being able to see my sisters. I made a complaint about this, as initially I wasn’t allowed to see anyone under 16, and I was told a “printing error” had been made and in fact I could, but with supervision.

“Yes, I can understand there is a risk, but police have left us hanging. We’ve heard nothing.”

MP fighting for reform

Member of Parliament for Lincoln Karl McCartney brought his constituent’s experience with him to the House of Commons earlier this month.

He asked to meet with Minister for Policing and Fire Service Brandon Lewis and stated: “I am fully aware that this is an operational matter for the police, but my constituent’s rights to a family life and education are currently being detrimentally severely impacted by what I feel is the police’s underfunded and understaffed investigation.”

Karl McCartney speaking in the House of Commons on September 5.

Karl McCartney speaking in the House of Commons on September 5.

Lewis agreed to meet with the MP to discuss how forces can avoid lengthy periods of police bail – particularly for young suspects.

He said:

“It is not right that some people can spend months or even years on pre-charge bail, with few or no safeguards.

“We will bring forward further amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to ensure that 17-year-olds are treated as children and are safeguarded as such.”

In March 2015 the then Home Secretary and current PM Theresa May promised to introduce significant pre-charge bail reforms, including time limits and regular reviews by the courts.

New legislation could mean bail terms last no longer than 28 days, with extensions permissible only under specific circumstances, and any extension beyond 3 months would have to be approved by a magistrate.

Time limit risks

The Lincolnite asked Phil Baker, Chief Inspector of the East Midlands Criminal Justice System for Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire whether officers are taking too long to decide whether to prosecute.

“Pre-charge bail can be up to 18 months and even longer, but it depends on each investigation”, he said. “I don’t have the exact number of people who are on bail with us, but we do keep track of it and do what we can to reduce the number.

Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

“Not everyone that we release on bail has conditions, each case is assessed as investigations continue.

“The length of time on the investigations varies and sometimes extra time is curtail to obtain the evidence needed. Especially with today’s technology. If there are computers and other devices to analyse this takes longer than people may realise, and if anything of note is found things can snowball.

“The process is well scrutinised and people want to dispute conditions there are necessary checks and balances in place. We also routinely monitor the numbers of people with have on bail and try to get them down as much as we can.

“We need not only to protect potential victims, but witnesses, suspects and possible evidence too. We do not detain people for their inconvenience.

“If there was a cap in place clearly there could be evidence that was not gathered in time. This has the potential to undermine the system.”