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The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) sets out how long a suspect can be detained in police custody for after his arrest before he must either be charged or released (with or without bail).

Broadly speaking, a suspect can be detained for an initial period of up to 24 hours starting from the “relevant time”, which will usually be the time at which he first arrives at a police station following his arrest. This can be extended for up to a further 12 hours on the authority of a police officer of the rank of superintendent or above. The police can then apply to the magistrates’ court for a further warrant of detention, which (if granted) enables the suspect to be detained for up to a further 36 hours. A further court application (or applications) can be made to extend the further warrant of detention for an additional 36 hours. However, the total period of detention must end no later than 96 hours after the relevant time.

It had previously been assumed that releasing a suspect on bail effectively “paused” the detention clock. It could then be restarted when the suspect answered police bail and was re-detained, even if this was at a point later than 96 hours after the relevant time.

However, a recent High Court decision has ruled that this is not the case under the precise wording of PACE. Instead, the maximum 96 hour period specified in PACE runs immediately from the relevant time and cannot (as has been common police practice) be suspended by releasing the suspect on bail and re-started at a later time beyond the 96 hours by re-detaining the suspect. The detention clock continues to run even while the suspect is on bail.

An appeal against the decision is due to be heard by the Supreme Court on 25 July 2011. On 4 July 2011 it heard an application to stay the High Court judgment, which would have effectively suspended it until the full appeal had been heard. However, this application was refused.

On 30 June 2011, policing minister Nick Herbert announced the Government’s intention to introduce emergency legislation to reverse the High Court’s decision, saying that the matter was too urgent to wait for the full Supreme Court appeal to be heard. The Opposition said it would support the legislation but queried why it had taken until then for the Home Office to reach this decision when the oral High Court decision had been handed down on 19 May 2011.

The Bill was published and had its first reading on 5 July 2011. All of its remaining Commons stages are due to take place on 7 July 2011. The Bill consists of two clauses. Clause 1 would introduce two new provisos into the relevant sections of PACE to the effect that when calculating detention periods under Part 4 of PACE, any period(s) spent on bail are to be disregarded. It would also make these changes retrospective. The Home Office says that these changes will reverse the effect of the High Court’s decision in the Hookway case. Clause 2 would extend the Bill to England and Wales only. This is in line with the territorial extent of PACE.

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