It is not often that a campaign by Liberty to protect the rights of criminal suspects gets favourable publicity in the Sun. However, there is an article in today’s Sun headed “Axe endless bail: Rights group calls for 6-month limit on police power“. It begins by telling readers that:
A TOP civil liberty campaigner yesterday called for a six-month limit people can be kept on police bail.
The reason for the Sun’s new found concerns about civil liberties is disclosed in the next line:
The plea comes as 39 suspects in the police probes into computer hacking and payments to police remain on bail after TWO YEARS without charge.
Liberty Legal Director James Welch is quoted as saying:
“Bail is a crucial police tool but, with no time limit, people’s lives are being put on hold and ruined by onerous bail conditions with no end in sight. A simple six-month statutory backstop would end the uncertainty and anxiety of having possible prosecution hanging over you indefinitely – and encourage prompt, efficient police investigations.”
It would be easy to be cynical about the Sun’s conversion to support for civil liberties: its record in this regard is appalling. It has, over the years, uncritically supported police demands for greater powers of investigation, arrest and detention. It has consistently campaigned for the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 which brings with it a host of protections for suspects (for example, journalists arrested in Scotland now get automatic access to legal advice as a result of the decision in Cadder v Her Majesty’s Advocate  UKSC 43).
But there is a serious point here. When an individual is held on police bail for a prolonged period this is a very serious interference with his or her ability to get on with normal life. The uncertainty can cause great distress to those arrested and their families. Whatever view is taken of the behaviour of Sun journalists in relating to hacking, bribing and other alleged criminal offences, it is plainly unacceptable for individuals to be kept on police bail for more than two years without charging decisions being made. The police should either discharge these individual’s bail or charge them and put an end to the uncertainty.
Forty individuals , including journalists, public officials and private individuals, are still on police bail after being arrested over the past 24 months by detectives working on Operations Elveden and Tuleta, part of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into alleged criminality by journalists and others. This should be unacceptable. Charging decisions should be made quickly after an arrest. The 6 month time limit proposed by Liberty – with perhaps the possibility of extension by a judge in exceptional circumstances – is reasonable and proportionate.
Similar points can be made about the “dawn raids” used to arrest a number of journalists. These were condemned by the Sun’s Associate Editor, Trevor Kavanagh. It has, of course, been pointed out that the Sun has, in the past, been a supporter of “dawn raids” by the police and has often reported on them without any adverse comment (occasionally with photographs).
But the point remains, police actions should be proportionate and large scale arrests of individuals at home should only be used in cases where there is a risk of violence or the disposal of the proceeds of crime.
It is to be hoped that one of the positive results of the whole “Hackgate” saga will be a greater sensitivity on the part of popular newspapers to civil liberties and human rights issues. Journalists should not be kept on bail for years or subjected to dawn raids and neither should ordinary criminal suspects. We look forward to the Sun supporting other campaigns by Liberty on these issues.