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When do the police stop investigating a crime?

released under investigation

If you have been arrested or interviewed, but not yet charged, you may be wondering how long the police can keep you in a state of suspense before deciding whether to proceed with your case. Waiting in limbo is difficult and the uncertainty regarding the future is likely to be placing pressure on your life, from your work to your family relationships. If you are in this position, you may be reassured to hear that the fact that you are the subject of a police investigation does not necessarily mean that you will be prosecuted.

In 2018, of all the criminal cases investigated by the police, only 9% resulted in a charge being brought.

This article aims to answer your questions regarding your rights in police investigations. We cover what happens in a police investigation, and how long investigations can stay open in the UK. We also look at how you can know if a police investigation has been closed. Finally, we answer the question of whether you can sue the police for failure to investigate a crime.

What happens in a police investigation?

The purpose of a police investigation is to gather evidence to assess whether a crime has taken place. If the police’s investigation suggests that a crime has taken place, the evidence that they gather will be used to support a criminal prosecution.

As part of the process of evidence gathering, the police will collect forensic evidence from the crime scene such as footprints and DNA. The police will take statements from witnesses who have relevant information to offer. Depending on the case, they may collect electronic information, which could be information from electronic devices that have been seized or information held in the cloud. They may also obtain financial information, such as your bank statements. The police have the right to obtain this information directly from the bank with a warrant.

If there is uncertainty regarding the identity of the suspect, identification procedures may be used, such as an identity parade, in which witnesses are asked to identify the suspect.

Most importantly, the police will interview whoever is suspected of the crime. The interview may take place prior to arrest (a voluntary interview), or after the suspect has been arrested. You have the right to obtain legal advice prior to your interview and to have a solicitor present during your interview.

Once the police investigation has been completed, the police will then decide whether to charge the suspect. If the suspect is charged, they will either be released on bail or remanded in custody. If they are not charged, they will be released. If the investigation is ongoing they will either be released on pre-charge bail or ‘released under investigation’.

How long can an investigation stay open in England and Wales?

There is no general time limit for how long a police investigation can stay open in England and Wales. For summary only offences, which are heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the case must be heard within twelve months of the crime. For example, in a case of common assault, if it took place on 1 December, the trial must take place before 1 June. However, for indictable offences, there is no such time limit.

In 2017, the government changed the rules on pre-charge bail through the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The changes restricted the police’s rights to release suspects on bail before they have been charged with an offence. The reason for these changes was a concern that the overuse of pre-charge bail for lengthy periods by the police was inhibiting the civil liberties of suspects. The changes to the law on pre-charge bail mean that:

  • An officer of the rank inspector or above must authorise bail.
  • The custody officer must be satisfied that releasing the person on bail is necessary and proportionate, having regard to all the circumstances and particularly the bail conditions that would be imposed.
  • The suspect can be initially bailed for up to 28 days. The exception to this is serious fraud cases where initial bail can be for up to 3 months. Note that this can be extended for up to three months. Pre-charge bail can only be extended beyond three months with a Magistrate’s Court hearing.

These changes have led to a dramatic decrease in the use of pre-charge bail. However, now, instead of releasing suspects on pre-charge bail, suspects tend to be released under investigation. This means that the suspect has been released with no obligation to return on bail. However, the investigation remains ongoing.

How do you know if a police investigation has been closed?

If you have been released on pre-charge bail, or if you have been released under investigation, the police will notify you if they decide to close the investigation. They may use the term ‘no further action’ (NFA) to describe their decision not to proceed further with the case. If you do not hear anything from the police, you could contact them to enquire as to the status of the investigation.

If you would prefer not to contact the officers involved with investigating your case, you can also submit a subject access request to the police service that investigated the case. A subject access request is a request for all the information held about you by that police force. This record will show if the investigation has been closed. However, if the investigation is ongoing, information regarding that investigation will be withheld from your subject access request because the police are not obliged to release information concerning a live investigation.

Can I sue the police for not investigating something in England and Wales?

The general rule is that you cannot bring a claim in tort (i.e. a civil case) against the police for failure to investigate a crime. This is an issue that the courts have considered many times over the years. The courts are reluctant to impose liability on the police in cases where there has been an omission to act (where they have not done something). The reason given for this is one of public policy, for the fear that claims for failure to investigate would open the floodgates, leading to many thousands of claims against the police lodged in the civil courts. This means that, for example, you cannot sue the police for failing to investigate the theft of your car.

In these circumstances, you could instead lodge a complaint with your local police force. Lodging a complaint would impose a duty on the police to investigate the complaint and the provide you with an explanation of why the crime was not investigated.

However, the exception to the rule that you cannot sue the police for failure to investigate is where there has been a human rights violation. A case in the UK Supreme Court has established that when a human rights violation takes place, the state has to investigate by law. For example, if a person has been killed, the right to life has been violated. If a person has been sexually assaulted, this is a contravention of the prohibition on inhumane and degrading treatment. In these circumstances, the police have an investigative obligation under human rights law.

This obligation involves the police taking all reasonable steps to investigate the crime. It also obliges the police to keep the victim, or their family in the case of bereavement, updated. This obligation arises even if the wrongdoer was not the state. Say, for example, a man murders his wife; the investigative obligation would then arise. A well publicised example of this is the case of John Worboys, who was branded by the press as the ‘taxi cab rapist’. He was eventually convicted of raping and sexually assaulting multiple women whilst working as a taxi driver. However, police investigative failures delayed his apprehension and prosecution, allowing him to commit more heinous crimes of the same type.

In 2018, the Supreme Court held that the police were liable for their failure to investigate.

Therefore, if you have been a victim of a serious crime, and the police have failed to investigate, you may be able to sue the police.

Claims under the Human Rights Act 1998 must be brought within 12 months of the date of the harm. Therefore, if you think that you may have a human rights claim against the police for failure to investigate, you should contact a civil liberties solicitor as soon as possible. Legal cases take time to build, so do not wait until the one year deadline before seeking legal advice.

Where to get further help

If you believe that your rights may have been breached by the police, get in touch with the experts at Stuart Miller Solicitors today. Our team of experienced civil liberties solicitors are here to advise you of your rights. We can explain the police complaints process and inform you regarding whether you have an actionable civil claim. Contact us to arrange a no obligation consultation today.


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