Attorney General written question – answered on 15th December 2021.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what guidance they give to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the maximum time after an individual has been arrested on suspicion of an offence that they may be charged with that offence.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

There are a number of different legal provisions that provide a maximum period for the charging of a suspect in England and Wales, but those periods do not usually run from arrest and they only apply in certain cases. In other cases, there is no set time limit from arrest to charge but the courts do have the power to stop a case as an abuse of process if there has been such delay as to make it unfair that the proceedings should continue.

The decision to charge is made by the police in some cases and by the CPS in other cases. The CPS make the decision to charge in serious cases but over the last five years the police have made the charging decision in 61% to 63% of the cases that are prosecuted by the CPS.

The most significant time limit for the charging of criminal offences is contained in section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980. That provides that summary-only offences must be charged within six months of the offence (not arrest) unless there is any special provision made for that offence. Those special provisions are limited; some provide for longer periods for certain offences and some provide for periods that only start once evidence of an offence comes to light.

There are also time limits contained within the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) that limit the time a suspect can be kept in custody after arrest. That can provide a time limit for the charging of cases when the police seek to charge and keep a suspect in custody for a court appearance. As a consequence of the time limits contained in PACE, decisions as to charge in those cases have to be made swiftly (the usual time limit is 24 hours, but more time can be available in some cases). For that reason, the CPS has prosecutors working 7 days a week, 24 hours a day to make charging decisions in those cases.

In other cases, in which suspects are released with or without bail (also known as released under investigation) there is no general cross government guidance on a maximum period between arrest and charge.

Timescales for charging decisions made by the police are a matter for policing. In cases in which the CPS make the charging decision, the CPS and the police have agreements in place that set a timetable that can change depending on the circumstances of each case. There will be cases in which the CPS cannot make a charging decision on the information provided and the case has to be referred back to the police for further investigation and a submission back to the CPS at a later date. The Code for Crown Prosecutors provides that decisions to prosecute should normally be made only when all outstanding reasonable lines of inquiry have been pursued or if the prosecutor is satisfied that any further evidence or material is unlikely to affect the decision to prosecute.

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