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Use of bail in domestic abuse cases

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 17th June 2020.

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“(1) Section 34 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (limitations on police detention) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (5)(a) for the word “applies” substitute “or subsection (5AB) applies”.

(3) In subsection (5)(b) for the word “applies” substitute “or subsection (5AB) applies”.

(4) In subsection (5A) insert after the words “applies if”, “subsection (5AB) does not apply and”.

(5) After subsection (5A) insert—

“(a) This subsection applies if—

(i) it appears to the custody officer that there is need for further investigation of any matter in connection with which the person was detained at any time during the period of the person‘s detention; and

(ii) the offence under investigation is an offence that amounts to domestic abuse as defined in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020;

(b) save that the person shall be released without bail if the custody officer is satisfied that releasing the person on bail is not necessary and proportionate in all the circumstances (having regard, in particular, to any conditions of bail which would be imposed and to the importance of protecting the complainant);

(c) before making a determination to release without bail or a determination as to any conditions of bail to impose, the custody officer shall conduct an assessment of the risks posed by not releasing the person on bail (including, in particular, to the complainant);

(d) before making a determination of a kind referred to in paragraph (c) the custody officer must inform—

(i) the person or the person’s legal representative and consider any representations made by the person or the person‘s legal representative; and

(ii) the complainant or the complainant’s representative and consider any representations made by the complainant or the complainant’s representative; and

(e) an officer of the rank of inspector or above must authorise the release on bail (having considered any representations made by the person or the person’s legal representative and by the complainant or the complainant’s representative).””

This new clause reverses the presumption against use of bail in the 2017 Act for these categories of offences, and introduces a risk assessment with prior consultation with the parties.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 31—Initial bail period for domestic abuse cases—

“(1) Section 47ZB of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1)(a) insert—

“(ab) in a DA case, the period of 3 months beginning with the person‘s bail start date, or”

(3) After subsection (4)(c) insert—

“(2) A “DA case” is a case in which—

(a) the relevant offence in relation to the person falls within the definition of “domestic abuse” in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020, and

(b) a senior officer confirms that sub-paragraph (i) applies.””

This new clause provides for an extension that would maintain bail for the duration of the pre-charge period, and remove the need for extensions, in most cases. This will also reduce the demand on police forces caused by processing bail extensions.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Good afternoon, Mr Bone. These two new clauses concern how bail is used in domestic abuse cases as a result of the changes to the bail regime as enacted in the Policing and Crime Act 2017.

As reported in the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the Policing and Crime Act 2017 restricted the length of pre-charge bail to 28 days in most circumstances and mandated that extensions could be authorised by police officers, but only if the officer authorising the extension had reasonable grounds for believing the investigation was being made “diligently and expeditiously.” That was a legislative response to cases such as that of broadcaster Paul Gambaccini who was repeatedly released on bail for more than a year while being investigated, but then subsequently cleared of all charges and not charged with anything at all.

We can contrast the scrutiny that that Bill received with that on this Bill, as it was reported to the Joint Committee that

“the consultation prior to the 2017 bail reforms did not hear from any women’s organisations, or victims’ groups, and that only policing bodies, organisations representing suspects and defence lawyers participated.”

Though well-meaning and made in response to a legitimate cause where pre-charge bail had been misused, the changes have had a devastating impact on victims of domestic abuse, as the police have drastically reduced the use of bail for perpetrators accused of rape and domestic violence, which has put survivors at an increased risk, as the alleged offender is being released without any conditions. That point was reinforced in the Joint Committee by Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who agreed that,

“the reduction in pre-charge bail in domestic abuse cases had been significant” and, more worryingly, told the Committee,

“that it could be difficult to convince a judge of the need for bail when a case progressed to court or if he or she had not been on police bail.”

A 28-day initial grant of bail is simply not enough time for an already stretched police force to gather the plethora of evidence needed in most domestic abuse cases. In evidence to the Joint Committee, Deb Smith of the Police Superintendents Association said:

“To get a charge on a domestic abuse case, there clearly has to be a significant amount of evidence gathered. That is almost always going to be nigh-on impossible in the first 28 days, even if somebody is released on bail. Then obviously we go to the superintendent’s extension for the three months, and even that is a challenging timeframe in which to get all the evidence required to satisfy a charge—third-party material, mobile phone records and so on.”

Once again, I find myself quoting the safeguarding Minister, because she herself admitted that, in the case of pre-charge bail:

“It is almost as though the pendulum has swung the other way, and we need to get it back in the middle by ensuring that for cases where it is appropriate to go beyond 28 days, people are being released on pre-charge bail with conditions as necessary and proportionate.”

It is encouraging that the Government have admitted faults with the current regime and I acknowledge that change has been promised, with a preliminary consultation on proposals for reviewing pre-charge bail legislation having just closed on 29 May. However, considering the opportunity offered by the Domestic Abuse Bill—it is right here before us and we know what the problem is—I do not think survivors and people at risk should have to wait for a possible police protection and powers Bill for the changes to appear.

I hear the Government’s argument that there are risks associated with making piecemeal changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 through the Domestic Abuse Bill. However, the way in which the changes in the 2017 Act have affected domestic abuse victims must be restated. The Government’s own figures show that in the first three months of the new law, use of bail conditions in domestic abuse cases dropped by a staggering 65%.

New clause 30 would reverse the general presumption against bail and require a risk assessment by officers in cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse on the impact of imposing or not imposing bail. It strongly mirrors the Home Office’s proposals on pre-charge bail and would therefore not conflict with the eventual legislative outcome of the wider Home Office review.

New clause 31 is a simple amendment that would extend the initial bail period in domestic abuse cases from 28 days to three months. We know from the police’s testimony to the Joint Committee that the 28-day limit is particularly problematic in domestic abuse cases. Increasing it to three months would reduce the burden of bureaucracy created by bail extensions in domestic abuse cases and make bail a more workable tool for the police. It would avoid the situation that currently arises, where bail is lifted after 28 days and victims find it difficult to obtain a non-molestation order without a recent incident, leaving them without any protection at all. Three months on bail is very different from the indefinite bail that existed before the 2017 Act, so the new clause would address the legitimate concerns that led to that legislation being enacted.

I urge Ministers to consider both new clauses in the context of the immediate relief they could offer domestic abuse survivors. It is reassuring that the Minister committed to the inclusion of victims of domestic abuse in the statutory guidance, but I urge Members to take advantage of the opportunity we have before us. We know that we are heading into a period when both Houses of Parliament will be gridlocked with legislation. Despite the potential extension of the parliamentary terms and revocation of recesses, we are heading into a period when the House will be jam-packed with legislation. As we head towards 31 December and our leaving the European single market and customs union, it is certain that next year will be an even heavier legislative period than this one. We have a Bill in front of us, we know what the problem is and there is a simple solution—please, Minister, do not make us wait.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I say at the outset that I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s position. We are conscious of the unintended consequence of the well-intentioned reforms to pre-charge bail in 2017. We are committed to ensuring that the police have the powers they need to protect the public, and that our criminal justice system has at its heart the welfare and best interests of victims.

Over the past few years, crime has become more complex, and the police are dealing with more digital evidence and new challenges. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced a number of reforms to pre-charge bail to address legitimate concerns that suspects were spending too long under restrictive conditions, with no oversight. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman gave an example of that. The 2017 reforms allowed individuals to be released under investigation and introduced a presumption in favour of release without bail, unless its use was considered necessary and proportionate. They limited the initial imposition of pre-charge bail to 28 days. I must emphasise that the police can still use pre-charge bail when it is necessary and proportionate to do so, and they have our full support in that.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has issued guidance highlighting that police should use pre-charge bail when there are risks to victims and witnesses, and the need to regularly review cases where such suspects are released under investigation.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:30 pm, 17th June 2020

On risk, the new clause seeks to amend the Bill to ensure that a proper risk assessment is done. Somebody in a case involving me was recently released under investigation, and no risk assessment of my safety was done.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Obviously, I am concerned to hear that. I take the point about risk assessment and will raise it with the NPCC lead. The hon. Member for Hove referred to the forthcoming police powers and protections Bill, but in the interim I very much want that to be considered.

We have worked closely with policing partners and other partners across the criminal justice system to track its implementation and monitor its impact, and we know that the use of pre-charge bail has fallen significantly. We have listened carefully to these concerns, and in November, as the hon. Gentleman said, we announced a review of pre-charge bail to address concerns raised about the impact of current rules on the police, victims, those under investigation and the broader criminal justice system. We launched a public consultation in February, which closed on 29 May. We received more than 1,000 responses, which we are analysing before deciding how best to proceed.

However, I very much take the point about the needs before the police powers and protections Bill is introduced, but our concern is that we cannot deal with this in a piecemeal, offence-specific manner; we have to take a holistic approach to changing the pre-charge bail system. This Bill is not the correct vehicle for that but, as the hon. Gentleman said, the police powers and protections Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech may well be.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I need to put something on the record. It is always ideal to look at these matters in the round, in the holistic way that the Minister mentions. However, when we see an attack in public, outside, suddenly the Government find the ability to review things, such as early release programmes, and to introduce very specific pieces of piecemeal legislation, if I may describe them in those terms. The Bill is before us. We cannot wait any longer. We believe that every life matters, and we think the fact that victims out there feel threatened by this should be power enough to force a specific change here until we get that holistic report and legislation that she seeks.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the new powers in relation to terrorism offences, if I have understood correctly. That is a discrete part of the criminal justice system. Pre-charge bail has the potential to apply to pretty much every criminal offence, with the exception of the murder; it would clearly be very unusual for anyone facing a murder charge to be released on bail. Again, we have to look at the system in a holistic way, which is what we are planning. However, I will raise the point about risk with the NPCC so that in the intervening months, while the Bill is still going through Parliament—let us not forget that that does not finish when we finish here tonight; the Bill has some scrutiny ahead of it—we get the message through to the police chiefs, in addition to what we have already said, that this matter is of particular concern to the Committee.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

At the risk of sounding like a one-trick pony, I want to talk about some of my experience in court, touching on some things that we have just been speaking about, or that will be referred to later when the hon. Member for Hove speaks again about court.

My experience is that magistrates consistently deal with difficult cases. It is difficult to balance the rights of a victim and the rights of a defendant. I have not talked much about defendants, but it is true that we see a lot of defendants who have terrible stories to tell. In my maiden speech, I said that being a magistrate had changed my perspective on the world, because I had never seen the kinds of lives that were coming up in front of me, and not just of the victims but of the defendants.

I told the story of a boy who walked in on my first day, when I was still being mentored. He was 18 and it was his first appearance in an adult court. He looked about 10—he was tiny—and he was grey. I said to my mentor, “God, he can’t be in this court, surely,” and they said, “No, I know him from the family courts.” He was malnourished because his parents were drug addicts and he was never fed properly. He was grey because he was malnourished and he had been injected with heroin to keep him quiet as a child. But he had burgled an elderly couple’s house. There are lots of victims in a courtroom and it almost does not matter where they are sitting. It is a constant battle as a magistrate to weigh up the rights of the defendant and the rights of the victim.

That touches on bail, which is an unpopular thing to talk about in court, because in some ways everyone is a threat and everyone can go on to do nasty things to nice people, but magistrates have to weigh up the right of habeas corpus—the right of a defendant to have liberty until he has been convicted of a crime. That is really difficult to weigh up, because it involves thinking about the risks to the victim, the defendant’s right to liberty and the presumption of innocence.

That is why the holistic approach that the Minister is talking about is important, because it will touch on not just domestic abuse cases, but the precedents and the impact that has on the court system and the rights of defendants in the court system. The hon. Member for Hove mentioned the pendulum, which it is important to get right. I think the more holistic approach is genuinely the right way to go on that.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that contribution. She should never apologise for sharing the experience that she has gained outside this place and brings in here; it is an asset to our deliberations, not a hindrance.

I agree completely. In fact, I was quoting the Minister when I mentioned the now infamous pendulum. I think we all agree that the pendulum has swung the other way. We must always have consideration for the basic right of liberty, including for alleged perpetrators and defendants, which is why getting bail and bail conditions right is essential. What we are talking about here are conditions, not liberty—the conditions on which people are granted liberty.

The Minister’s main concern, if I interpret it correctly, is that new clause 31 could have unintended consequences on other parts of the bail system. Subsection (2) states:

“After subsection (1)(a) insert—

‘(ab) in a DA case, the period of 3 months beginning with the person’s bail start date, or’”.

Subsection (3) continues:

“After subsection (4)(c) insert—

‘(2) A “DA case” is a case in which—

(a) the relevant offence in relation to the person falls within the definition of “domestic abuse” in section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2020’”.

I fail to see how that could have an impact on other crimes. It is very specific. As I say, I understand why Government Ministers want to deal with the challenge that was caused by the Policing and Crime Act 2017 holistically, but we have a specific fix for a specific challenge in front of us now. I believe this would lead to a better piece of holistic legislation, because it would provide a workable template for it to be enacted down the line.

I will not push the new clause to a Division now but will keep this question open. The Minister intimated several times that she would welcome further scrutiny of the clause. I hope that this gives her the opportunity to reflect on this challenge and come up with her own fix for it, perhaps on Report or Third Reading. I do not believe that victims of domestic abuse should continue to suffer any longer from the uncertainty that would be created by this pernicious eventuality. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.