For most people, interactions with the police are stressful regardless of whether they have done something wrong. This stress is compounded when a person has been interviewed by the police only to be ‘released under investigation’ without much information or instruction on what comes next. Since the Policing and Crime Act came into force in April 2017, most of the people that are arrested and interviewed under caution are released under investigation, which is somewhat akin to saying that people have been ‘released on police bail’. There are, however, some key legal differences between the two terms and if you have found yourself in a situation where you have been released under investigation, it is important (a) that you understand that it is different from the old bail mechanism and (b) that you get expert advice from a legal professional about what happens next. Read on to discover more.
Put simply, being ‘released under investigation’ means that you have been interviewed under caution and have now been allowed to leave the police station while the police officers continue to investigate the crime. The police will conduct their investigation and inform you at some point in the future as to the outcome of such.
It is regrettable that there is no clear time frame for police investigations. Not only do the investigation lengths depend on the nature of the alleged crime, the availability of witnesses and evidence, and the cooperation of suspects, but they also largely depend on the station’s existing workload and resources. For these reasons, it is near impossible to say how long a police investigation will take. The only thing most people can do is request updates from the police – either directly or through their solicitors – at various intervals to try to keep abreast of developments.
Frustratingly, there is no clear answer to this. Unlike with police bail, those released under investigation are not given a certain date when they must return to the police station. Instead, they are just told that they will be contacted ‘at some point in the future’ and that they must return to the station when the police ask them to.
Evidently, this is problematic for those accused of crimes. The release under investigation system was meant to help overcome the problem of excessive stress and anxiety caused by people having to spend months or even years on bail without any kind of clarity on their cases owing to lengthy police investigations. But police investigations have not really gotten any shorter, and continued cuts to police budgets mean that investigatory resources are stretched further and thinner than ever before.
The reality, then, is that the release under investigation system is no better at reducing the stress and anxiety of criminal procedures than the typical police bail system is. In fact, it might even be worse, as at least with bail there is some clarity in respect of conditions and times that one must return to the station. With release under investigation, suspects are merely told to wait until further notice.
If you are called by the police and asked to come back to the police station, you might be charged with the offence when you get there. If this happens, you will be given a charge sheet that gives details about the offence you have been charged with, along with other information like bail conditions (surrender of passport and having to observe a curfew being two of the most common for serious crimes) and a date to attend court.
If you are not called back to the police station, however, you are likely to face an anxious wait as the news will arrive by ‘postal requisition’. A postal requisition is a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that serves as a summons. The letter will tell you what crime or crimes you have been charged with, and you will be given a date to attend court.
On occasion, you might get a phone call informing you of the intention to prosecute before you receive the letter, but most people just get the letter out of the blue.
There is no clear timeframe for when you should receive this letter, and many suspects go months or years after their interview under caution before they receive anything in the post.
The lack of predictability around this letter may also lead to further problems, because suspects may move to a new house, be away for work, go on holiday or similar and not receive the letter, in which case a warrant would be issued for their arrest and the police could take them at any time. Again, this is a highly stressful experience that most consider not to be warranted.
Once you receive a postal requisition, get in touch with a solicitor. Remember that you have the right to legal representation and that you may choose who represents you. This may not be the duty solicitor (who may have assisted you at the station initially), nor the first solicitor who represented you.
If you are a minor, different rules apply for when you are charged with a crime. If you are under 18, your first hearing will normally be at the youth court. If under 17, the police have to arrange local authority accommodation for you, if possible, before you are required to go to court. If even younger, within the 12 to 16 age bracket, the police can decide to keep you at the police station only if they consider that your release would endanger the public.
The police are allowed to seize any items that they believe are relevant to the investigation. This can range from clothing to personal electronic devices.
It is likely that the police took your mobile phone and perhaps any computers, tablets, and photographic equipment (digital cameras or photographic film, for example) when they arrested you. If this is the case, the police will have sent your devices or equipment away for forensic testing at a laboratory. This process sometimes takes months, and so it is not uncommon for you to be without your property for long periods of time during the investigation.
A solicitor may be able to ask the police to expedite the process if you require that equipment for work or another important reason, and they in any case should keep checking with the police to see if the investigation of that particular item has been concluded (thus enabling it to be returned to you). In most cases, however, you just have to be patient and wait until the investigation is over to get your possessions back.
On account of the above, and other criticisms, the release under investigation system has proven controversial.
Since the changes made in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, a number of observers and criminal reform experts have questioned whether the release under investigation mechanism is an effective and desirable one. The main criticism is that releasing someone under investigation leaves both them and any alleged victims in a state of limbo. Unlike when put on bail, there are no deadlines or time limits that the police must act by, meaning that for months and even years at a time those accused of crimes effectively have their life put on hold.
Another important consideration is the fact that releasing someone under investigation puts victims at risk of contact from – or again falling victim to – the accused. In bail situations, certain limitations and restrictions could be placed on the accused – such as having to observe a curfew or not being able to travel in a certain area – but with release under investigation there are no such restrictions. This means, in theory (and unfortunately often in practice) that those accused of even serious crimes like rape can easily access their victims if released under investigation.
As a result of these criticisms and safety concerns, the Law Society, for one, has scrutinised the practice. This, in turn, has led to the Home Office to announce a formal review of the released under investigation system. In future, it is likely the system may be scrapped or change significantly.
If you have been released under investigation and are still confused (understandably!) about what it all means, consider getting expert advice on the specifics of your case from a criminal defence solicitor. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our lawyers have years of experience in understanding bail conditions and the new regime of release under investigation, and they can offer a no-obligation consultation to help you figure out your next steps. For more information and to schedule a consultation, please get in touch today.