Claire Anderson, of ABV Solicitors, writes in The Times:
Leaving suspects in the dark for years can destroy lives – our justice system must unite for change.
Waiting for results is stressful, whether it be for medical tests or exams, indeed anything that will have an impact on one’s life and future.
Imagine a serious sexual allegation is made against you – perhaps by a former partner or family member. You are interviewed by police and strenuously deny the allegation. You are told that there will be an investigation. You will be notified “in due course” of the outcome. Weeks, then months roll by. Sometimes years. You remain in limbo. The strain is unbearable, affecting not only you but all those close to you. It is a living hell.
This scenario happens week in week out. It is, in fact, a more or less universal phenomenon that solicitors see happening all across England and Wales.
During the past 3 months 6,500 new cases have entered into this legal no-man’s land. No conditions, no supervision, no time limit.
Both suspects and lawyers are often kept in the dark about the progress of a case. No matter the nature of the alleged crime – whether to do with sexual allegations, drugs, fraud or serious assault – the same condition applies. More than half of the lawyers surveyed by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association report to having cases under police investigation that have already lasted between 18 months and 2 years.
Two years of a suspect with their life on hold, two years of a complainants or victim with no closure or protection, two years of society unprotected by safeguards.
The mess we are in lies in part in a well-intentioned law change. After a campaign started by the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini and others, the Policing and Crime Act 2017 limited to 28 days the length of time a suspect could remain on pre-charge bail on conditions – extendable in exceptional circumstances. At the time, defence lawyers thought that was a great advance. But was it?
The legislation has clearly backfired. Because of the overwhelming nature of their workload, police came up with the practise of releasing suspects ‘under investigation’ indefinitely, which explains why some are trapped in limbo for 2 years or more. Because these people are innocent until proven guilty, the new law achieves the opposite of what was originally intended.
The time has come to review the entire police investigation process. The justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, and the police themselves need to unite to remedy the current situation and bring about change that can provide justice to suspects in a legal and timely manner.