It would seem not a day goes by when our newspapers, televisions and social media platforms aren’t alight with breaking stories or updates of the latest celebrity figure accused of a sexual offence.
Since the launch of Operation Yewtree in 2012 the police have taken the lead in co-ordinating an extensive assessment which as a result has seen a number of celebrities being investigated for offences relating to abuse. Due to the current laws some of those accused and released on police bail, including BBC radio presenter Paul Gambaccini, Jim Davidson, Freddie Starr and Jimmy Tarbuck, had an anxious and lengthy wait to discover that the allegations would not be upheld.
It was a number of months before the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed no further action would be taken against them over alleged sex offences. This ongoing operation has sparked increased public awareness to the protocol of police bail and has triggered a proposed change in the law which is advocated by Home Secretary, Theresa May. These proposed changes will see bail limitations set to a maximum of 28 days and anonymity for suspects in such cases.
Often police procedures and protocol are somewhat alien to most of us until unfortunately we either become a victim of a crime or are the accused.
In the ever evolving world of 24/7 news reporting and the growing impact of social media, cases of this nature are often catapulted to the forefront of our news headlines and brought to public attention at very early stages of the investigations. As a result of such attention many of us will instantly form an opinion of the accused whilst others will gravitate to one of our fundamental human rights and the term “innocent until proven guilty”.
Popular television programmes, including the Channel 4 fly on the wall documentary ’24 Hours in Police Custody’, can also influence public opinion as it highlights areas of criminal investigation and what occurs in the immediate aftermath of an arrest.
Whilst there is no denying that such programmes can provide insight and knowledge for viewers often it’s the entertainment value that takes precedent.
I personally find it somewhat misleading in that the programme implies that the police have just 24 hours to investigate a crime before a decision on charge can be made, brushing over the reality that many investigations can take a number of months, sometimes in excess of a year, before a case is even sent to the CPS for a decision on charge.
In the interim a defendant would be released on police bail, often with stringent bail conditions. If later charged, proceedings would commence in the Magistrate’s Court and escalated to the Crown Court depending upon the severity and nature of the offence. It can take a number of months for a defendant to reach trial.
Figures published in October 2014 suggested that more than 70,000 people were on police bail, 5,400 of which had been on bail for more than six months.
Currently, Parliament is proposing a reform which will call for a limit of 28 days on police bail for suspects in sex cases. A select committee’s report was launched to fundamentally re-examine the way pre-charge bail is used and authorised and the report is due to be publicised soon.
Interestingly the proposal also condemns the practice of informally releasing information about suspects to the media. In sexual cases, apart from in “exceptional” circumstances such as a threat to public safety, suspects should be granted the same amount of anonymity as the victim.
The practical application of such reform is concerning as it will rely heavily on the efficiency of our police force and legal services framework, both of which are currently experiencing the challenging environment of government cuts and expanding performance targets.
Will police resources, both financially and in terms of personnel, be adequate to operate at a sufficient level for the implementation of such reforms? If not, will we see a negative impact on the investigations of other crimes, such as burglaries and assault? Will individuals remain on police bail for longer than anticipated whilst police resource prioritises cases of sexual abuse? Will the statutory time limits cause offenders to potentially not face justice as the police are burdened with work?
Whilst I agree with the concept of the proposals, lengthy police bail will always affect at least one victim, whether that be the victim of a crime or an innocent suspect who has to wait months on police bail before being released with no charge.
Striking a balance between justice for the victim and the suspect is to avoid delays at all costs. However, I wonder whether the reality and practical challenges of implementation will result in such reforms falling at the first hurdle in light of the excessive cuts and increased pressures on an already struggling framework.