The piece below, by Dame Vera Baird, appeared in The Telegraph on Tuesday 10th March
Let’s get back to police bail that protects victims and gives the public confidence. Since reforms in 2017, the use of police bail has fallen sharply. People suspected of sexual and violent offences, including domestic abuse, are often being released without restrictions on where they can go or and who they can contact. This has made victims all the more reluctant to report crime as they fear they will be left unprotected.
Indeed, it seemed as if, at least for a time, police were behaving as though bail has been abolished save in the most exceptional circumstances. Though this was never so, it raises issues about how the 2017 provisions were communicated even to the police. These frankly disastrous changes were brought in as a response to an empty populist complaint that being on bail was damaging in itself.
The problem was the length of time particular sex abuse investigations were taking. This was leaving accused people in limbo, their lives on hold for months and even years. Of course, the mischief lies in leaving them under suspicion, especially in the public mind, for all that time. The existence of unconditional bail or not adds nothing.
Yet a statutory presumption against pre-charge police bail came into force which, inevitably, police officers diligently followed. The consequence of the presumption against police bail was the interest of victims would only be considered in exceptional cases.
In recent years the proportion of police investigations closed as a result of victims withdrawing their support has nearly trebled and the percentage of cases resulting in a charge has halved. HMICFRS inspectors are concerned the public has given up on the police solving crimes and that the failure to investigate high-volume crimes was having a “corrosive” effect on the public’s trust in the police. The reasons behind these figures are complex, but it is very likely that leaving complainants and witnesses feeling unprotected without bail has led to some of the withdrawals at least.
People who know their alleged offender will particularly fear contact. Without police bail conditions against contact, some defendants may think that the balance of risk favours making that fear a reality. So, we must send a new message and promote a new law that bail with conditions will always be used where appropriate.
Nobody wants a return to bail in every case, if that ever were the situation. But the presumption against bail must be reversed and replaced by a presumption in favour of bail with conditions in all cases where the allegation is of serious sexual or violent offences, all allegations of domestic abuse and stalking and in all other cases where the suspect is known to the complainant and thus the complainant is likely to fear contact.
The right approach in less serious cases is to return to the position where officers apprised of the facts and the background deciding with the input of the complainant whether bail and/or conditions are necessary and appropriate.
From the defendant’s point of view, the decision to curtail police bail has also had damaging consequences. Over-stretched Police officers would probably accept they sometimes used bail return dates as a case management tool, not necessarily advancing an investigation until pressed to do so by the imminence of the defendant reporting back to the police station. Of course, today, in cases where police bail is not used, there is no return date to accelerate investigative action and officers are still over-stretched. This creates a risk that suspects are kept even longer under suspicion in some cases.
We have seen a steady increase in the length of police investigations, particularly in sexual assault cases. Leaving victims in limbo for over-long periods of time can potentially re-traumatise them, making them feel the system does not care about them. Victims who feel abandoned by the justice system are less likely to participate in it. Thus, taking bail out as a lever for progress, however informally it was used in that way, has been bad for victims and bad for defendants, too.
It is not only that the lack of bail makes victims feel they are exposing themselves to further harm by reporting a crime. It is rare that even if there is bail with conditions, it is enforced meaningfully. This is the time to review the effectiveness of bail conditions. There is no sanction when those on bail breach, for instance, a no-contact condition or an exclusion zone. Such a breach must become a criminal offence that can result in a remand in custody, and an a further custodial sentence.
Failing to take action on bail breaches, when friends and relatives can see that victims are being contacted by the suspect or see the suspect inside an exclusion zone, saps their sense of safety too. Why would someone who sees this ever, themselves, take the risk of reporting crime and being left exposed to possible recriminations by the defendant? There is an obvious detrimental impact in public confidence overall and in belief in the justice system’s capacity to protect people.
The Government now needs to reassure victims by sending a message to the public that bail will be used where proportionate and necessary to protect them and that all changes to legislation going forward will be carried out on the basis of evidence. Victims in particular are entitled to nothing less.
Follow this link for Victims’ Commissioner’s letter to the Home Secretary