The media coverage of this news story about bail has been completely ridiculous. The impression being given is that suddenly the police can’t bail suspects any more and will just have to let them go. Oh noes! Terrible! Horrifying! Not remotely true, however.
Here’s what’s happened. The powers of the police to detain people without charge come from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. They can hold someone for up to thirty-six hours, then they have to apply to a court for an extension of up to thirty-six more hours. After that, you have to let them go unless you have new evidence, in which case you can re-arrest them. (Here’s the text of the relevant bit of the Act if you want.)
For twenty-five years, the police have been getting the extension, releasing the suspect on bail before the extension warrant ran out, and then some time later — weeks or months later maybe — taking the suspect back into custody for however long was left on the warrant. Which is fine unless you actually read the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which makes it pretty flaming clear that the warrant is valid for thirty-six hours from the time when the suspect arrives at the police station. Not thirty-six hours that you can use in whatever chunks you like over any period.
The surprising thing here is not that a High Court judge has interpreted the Act in this way. The surprising thing is that nobody has interpreted it properly before. Seriously. I mean, it is a fairly complex bit of legislation and I wouldn’t expect someone without any legal training to find it obvious. But I would expect anyone upwards of an undergraduate in law to find it very difficult to come up with any other interpretation. I had to spend fifteen minutes after reading the ruling trying to find out what I’d missed that made it less obvious. (Answer: nothing.)
But that isn’t the point. The point is the consequences of the ruling. Which are unimpressive. The police can still detain people without charge for up to ninety-six hours. The police can still release people on bail after that, for as long as they want. And they can still re-arrest them after that, as long as they have some new evidence. What they can’t do is release them on bail and then re-arrest them just because they feel like it.
The thing is, you know, sometimes you can sympathize with journalists who hype up a story to sound more exciting than it is. They have to make a living, after all. But there is already a pretty dramatic story here that also has the benefit of actually being true. The story is not that the police have lost a crucial power and are now completely incapable of fighting crime effectively. The story is that the police have been detaining people for the last twenty-five years using a power they didn’t have.
Journalists. This is not difficult. Please try harder.