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Pre-charge bail, or ‘police bail’, has been variously described as a legal limbo, an assault on liberty and punishment without trial. It is also recognised as an important power by which the police can continue to investigate allegations whilst allowing suspects to maintain their normal routines and affording victims of crime a degree of protection.

There are limits on the length of time police can detain a suspect in custody before they must either charge or release. A third option frequently used is to release the suspect but on pre-charge bail.

Critics condemn what they call the police’s ‘flypaper’ tactic in recent high profile cases of arresting someone, leaking the details, then endlessly re-bailing them in the hope that other people come forward. Others accuse the police of using pre-charge bail conditions as a means of controlling and silencing legitimate protesters.

These criticisms are strenuously denied by the police, who have their own concerns about the exercise of pre-charge bail powers. They cite the problem of delays caused by third-party contributors to criminal investigations, and the relative ‘toothlessness’ of pre-charge bail in cases of suspected terrorism.

Following these and other criticisms of the powers, the Coalition Government consulted on statutory changes to reduce both the number of those on pre-charge bail and its average duration. In March 2015 the Home Secretary Theresa May promised to introduce significant reforms in this parliament, including time limits, a presumption that suspects will be released without bail, regular reviews by the courts and formal guidance governing the imposition of conditions.

A Poling and Justice Bill was promised in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015. The Government described one of the main benefits of Bill as ‘putting a stop to people remaining on bail for months or even years with no independent oversight of the police’s investigation’.

However the question of conditions to pre-charge bail – and the debate as to whether the rules as a whole ought to be limited or strengthened – has now returned to the fore following a terrorist suspect leaving the UK for Syria whilst on police bail.

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