The home secretary, Priti Patel, has bowed to pressure from rank-and-file police officers and is seeking to rip up changes to bail rules spearheaded by Theresa May.
Patel has proposed doubling or trebling the length of pre-charge bail, which since 2017 has been limited to 28 days under changes drawn up by May when she was home secretary and implemented when she was prime minister.
The proposals put out to consultation by Patel would delay the point at which magistrates’ approval for the extension of bail is required from three months to six, nine or 12 months.
May introduced the cap on pre-charge bail as part of the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The cap followed a series of high-profile cases, during which the suspect remained on bail for more than a year before ultimately being released without charge.
Among the most notable cases was that of the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who backed the 28-day limit after he was placed on police bail for a year while officers investigated unfounded allegations of historical sexual abuse, which he always denied, before the case against him was dropped. He claimed lost earnings and legal fees had cost him more than £200,000.
But the Police Federation, which represents tens of thousands of rank-and-file officers, has levelled severe and sustained criticism of May’s changes since they were first proposed.
The domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid has previously called for the changes to be reversed as releasing suspects without bail conditions can leave abuse survivors unprotected while they wait for perpetrators to be charged.
Patel said the proposals would provide a “voice to victims” and give the police the support they need to protect the public from harm.
Other changes include removing the presumption against pre-charge bail and allowing officers of a lower rank to authorise and extend pre-charge bail.
A duty on officers to use pre-charge bail in cases where it is necessary and proportionate, including for cases where there are risks to victims and where it could prevent reoffending, is proposed.
The Home Office said it would consult victims of crime as well as individuals who have been released under investigation about how the current system could be improved, as well as seeking views on the effectiveness of existing bail conditions.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for bail management, the chief constable Darren Martland, said: “In the years since the bail legislation was amended, the police service has worked hard to implement the changes in the spirit they were introduced. What has become clear in that time is that a number of unintended consequences have followed, presenting fresh challenges for the police service and the wider criminal justice system.”
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “In the interests of both justice to citizens not yet charged and to public safety, pre-charge bail and release under investigation must be used appropriately.
“The 2017 act, though flawed, sought to introduce greater efficiency to police investigations by limiting the use of pre-charge bail and setting limits … but officers often struggle to investigate cases expeditiously because of under-resourcing.
“That’s because years of underfunding has left our criminal justice system at breaking point; it simply does not have the resources to function effectively.
“Reform to pre-charge bail, though necessary, is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. If we want swift, fair and efficient justice we must invest in every aspect of our ailing criminal justice system. Otherwise, more crime may fall through the cracks of investigation and prosecution.”
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate are conducting a joint inspection of how police forces manage changes to bail and are expected to publish their reports by the summer.