Use of bail in domestic abuse cases

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

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Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:15 pm, 17th June 2020

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.