Victims have been left unprotected and a suspected paedophile left free to strike after government changes to bail plunged parts of the criminal justice system into chaos, an official report has found.
The report from the police and prosecution inspectorates found damage was caused to the confidence of domestic abuse victims, whose alleged attackers were left free without restrictions while cases came to court.
The reforms to bail introduced in 2017 by the government had noble motives. They were meant to stop innocent suspects languishing on bail for years and were triggered by outrage over the treatment of DJ Paul Gambaccini, who was wrongly accused of child sexual abuse. He and others felt their reputations were ruined, as police overused powers to impose restrictive conditions on those arrested despite their cases not yet reaching the courts.
A report released on Tuesday unveils large-scale problems with the bail reforms. The report by Her majesty’s inspectorates of constabulary and prosecution said the chaos was unforeseen, and too many police were unaware of guidance issued in 2019 that was meant to fix the problems.
The report said: “We spoke to senior leaders in each of the four forces we inspected. They told us that when the legislation was introduced, not enough consideration was given to how forces could implement the changes effectively with the resources available. This has meant that forces have had to make difficult decisions about where to prioritise resources.”
Zoe Billingham, of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), said the full consequences “had not been thought through”.
Bail was available for the first 28 days after arrest, but the changes were supposed to make it harder, but not impossible, to renew. Consequently, suspects were often released under investigation with no restrictions, leading to fear among their alleged victims, and suspects languishing longer than before the reforms.
The report said that of 140 cases examined, in 62 a suspect was released under investigation when bail with restrictions should have been used. The inspectors said this was needed “to offer more protection for the victim. These cases included domestic abuse, sexual offences and offences against children – serious crimes. This is extremely worrying, especially for the victims in these cases, who had no bail conditions in place to keep them safe.”
The report found one case where a suspected paedophile was arrested and after three months the bail restrictions lapsed. This was because delays in getting digital evidence from the suspect’s devices meant police feared they would fall short of meeting the threshold to get bail extended.
HMIC said when the digital evidence finally arrived, police realised the suspect had offended again: “This resulted in further new offences being identified of making indecent images of children and inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.
“During the period between the bail expiring and his re-arrest, he was found to have committed further offences. At court, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison,” the report said.
The report raised particular concerns about domestic abuse cases.
Billingham said: “It has a profound effect on victims’ confidence that they are being taken seriously and staying with cases that can drag on for months and years.” He added that it was a “really serious state of affairs” and that the Home Office was considering changes.
Billingham said: “It [the report] supports a conclusion that the original intentions of the legislation not been achieved.”
The West Midlands deputy police and crime commissioner, Waheed Saleem, said: “The current system is clearly unsuitable for victims and in many cases leaves them more vulnerable and feeling unsafe.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for bail, Chief Constable Darren Martland, said: “At the time of the changes, police chiefs highlighted concerns regarding the impact they may have on victims and witnesses and the speed of their introduction, which gave very little time to prepare for such a major change of approach.”
Richard Miller, head of justice for the Law Society, which represents solicitors, blamed the chaos on an underfunded system that was under great strain: “Years of underfunding have left our criminal justice system on its knees – it simply does not have the resources to function effectively.
“Although reform to pre-charge bail is necessary, it is not a silver bullet. If the government wants swift, fair and efficient justice, they must invest in every aspect of our ailing criminal justice system.”
Police forces accepted the findings of the report and promised to make changes.