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What happens behind the closed doors of the police station when the police investigate a crime? Can other government bodies be involved in the investigation of an offence? What steps do the police take during their investigation, and how do they go about gathering evidence? If you have been arrested on suspicion of a crime, you may be asking yourself some of these types of questions. This article aims to demystify criminal investigations in England and Wales. We explain who investigates crimes in England and Wales, and delve into how police investigations are carried out. We look at the legal duties upon police investigators and disclosure officers. We also explore the time limits involved in police investigations.
The police, who are organised into territorial police services, i.e. services that cover a specific geographical area, investigate the majority of crimes in England and Wales. However, other specialist agencies are also involved in the investigation of crime. These are specialist police units, which sit outside of local police forces. These include:
There are also non-police law enforcement agencies that are responsible for investigating crimes. These include:
Most investigations into crimes are carried out by territorial police forces, such as the Metropolitan Police Service or City of London Police. The police usually take the following steps when investigating a crime. Of course, the order of events will depend on the circumstances in which a crime is reported.
Criminal investigations by police officers are regulated by the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act Code of Practice. The Code of Practice sets out the obligations of investigators and disclosure officers.
Investigators are ‘any police officers involved in the conduct of a criminal
investigation.’ A disclosure officer is ‘the person responsible for examining material retained by the police during the investigation; revealing material to the prosecutor
during the investigation and any criminal proceedings resulting from it, and
certifying that he has done this; and disclosing material to the accused at the
request of the prosecutor.’
The Code of Practice highlights key principles that should be followed when the police investigate crime. These include:
developments in the case that material previously examined but not retained
(because it was not thought to be relevant) may now be relevant to the
investigation, they should, wherever practicable, take steps to obtain it or ensure that it is retained for further inspection or for production in court if required.
decision is taken whether to institute proceedings against a person for an offence.
retained at least until the convicted person is released from custody, or discharged from hospital, in cases where the court imposes a custodial sentence or a hospital order; or six months from the date of conviction, in all other cases.
Time limits for police investigations
There is no strict limit on the length of time that a police investigation can take. However, court proceedings for summary only offences (offences that must be heard within the Magistrates’ Court) must be started within six months of the date of the offence. This means that, for example, if you are arrested on suspicion of common assault, your first appearance at the Magistrates’ Court must take place within six months of the date of the alleged assault.
Police custody time limits
The law also imposes limitations on the length of time that the police can remand you in police custody before you are brought before the Magistrates’ Court. The general rule is that you cannot be detained for more than 24 hours before being charged (s41 PACE). However, in certain circumstances, the police can extend this time limit.
The superintendent of a police station can extend the period of detention from 24 to 36 hours where an indictable offence is being investigated, and the superintendent reasonably believes that the further period of detention is necessary to secure or preserve evidence relating to an offence, to seize goods, or interview further witnesses (s42 PACE). The superintendent must be satisfied that the investigation is being conducted diligently and expeditiously.
The 36 hour period of detention can be extended to a maximum of 72 hours where the police make an application to the Magistrates’ Court for a warrant (s43 PACE). These custody time limits do not apply in terrorism cases, where longer periods of detention are permitted under statute.
Bail time limits
In 2022 the law changed to impose a3-month time limit on pre-charge bail. This time limit applies where you are released without charge on conditional or unconditional bail by the police. The aim of this change in law was ostensibly to protect the civil liberties of suspects, to ensure that they are not subjected to indefinite police investigations.
However, the time limit does not apply where you are ‘released under investigation’ by the police. This has led to police tending to release suspects under investigation, rather than placing them on bail, in order to avoid the 3-month time limit. Therefore the change in law has offered limited protection to suspects.
If you are looking for top quality representation in the criminal courts, contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today. We will fiercely defend you throughout the criminal justice process, from assisting you with bail applications to advising you in respect of whether there is a defence that you could rely upon. We are known for pulling out all the stops to ensure that you receive robust representation in court. Contact us for a no-obligation consultation today.
(This page was last updated on November 15, 2023).