Criminals Could Benefit From New Bail Ruling
5:04pm 29th June 2011
(Updated 12:03pm 30th June 2011)
Tens of thousands of violent criminals could escape prosecution after a bail ruling by a judge which left police officers baffled.
The decision may end the practice of releasing people on police bail and calling them back for further questioning later.
The ruling, backed by the High Court, means police forces can no longer let anyone out on bail for more than 96 hours without either being in a position to charge or release them.
After the four days is up, officers can no longer question suspects and can only re-arrest them if they have new evidence, the ruling says.
Police chiefs say they are baffled by the ruling by a district judge at Salford Magistrates' Court.
Home Secretary Theresa May said the matter was of "great concern" and confirmed she was looking at a number of possibilities in order to advise the police on the issue.
"There may be an opportunity to appeal this decision," said Ms May.
"We are also looking at whether or not it's necessary to introduce legislation in order to deal with this issue."
Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, said: "It's on the verge of a disaster now because the question being asked by my custody sergeants is, 'What do we do, boss?'
He added: "We are running round like headless chickens this morning wondering what this means to the nature of justice.
"My holding position with my officers is that I can't believe this is what was envisioned. We are waiting, as the rest of the world is, for the best advice from the best legal minds."
West Yorkshire Police will continue working as normal until further guidance is issued.
About 4,260 suspects are currently on bail from Sir Norman's force alone - which represents about 5% of the police service - meaning about 85,200 people are on bail at any one time.
James Welch, legal director for the civil rights group Liberty, said: "Being out on bail pending investigation is not the equivalent of being detained.
"Limits on the time that suspects can be held in police custody are necessary but there are good reasons why the police should be allowed to bail suspects for more than 96 hours."
He added that if the decision cannot be appealed, then legislation should be introduced to clarify the law.
The new ruling emerged as a result of a case involving murder suspect Peter Hookway, who was first arrested on November 7, 2010, but released after 28 hours despite permission to keep in custody for 36 hours.
Five months later, Greater Manchester Police applied to extend the detention from 36 to the maximum 96 hours, but the district judge refused, saying the custody allowance had expired months ago.
A judicial review at the High Court upheld the decision and the force is now seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.