Police have to release suspects from bail within 28 days unless there are serious concerns.
The move, which came into effect on Monday, follows criticism of people being kept on police bail for months or years without charge in investigations such as Operation Yewtree – into historical sexual abuse – and others.
Previously, there was no legal limit on how long someone could be bailed for.
Under the new rules, police bail can still be extended for up to three months more in complex cases with the authorisation of a senior police officer, or even further by applying to a magistrate.
Paul Gambaccini, the radio presenter who spent a year on bail before the case against him over historical sex allegations was dropped, welcomed the change.
“The knowledge that other people will not have to go through what I did will make my experience more bearable,” he said.
The 28-day limit is one of several measures that took effect on Monday through the Policing and Crime Act 2017.
However, the Royal College of Policing has labelled the introduction of the bail limit as “dangerous”. They say the change could lead to suspects being under investigation by one force without others knowing.
Concerns have also been raised about complex investigations like cyber-crime, which requires computers to be seized and equipment to be interrogated. Similarly, the results for detailed forensic tests can also take an extended period of time to come back.
The likely net effect is that fewer people will be arrested and those that are will most probably be released without bail – with no deadline for police to work towards. Instead, officers may well be forced to ask suspects to attend interviews voluntarily rather than go through the rigmarole of arresting someone, processing bail and then trying to charge them against the 28-day clock.
The Home Office said the change “brings an end to the injustice of people being left to languish on very lengthy periods of pre-charge bail”.
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