Campaign prompted by treatment of journalists prompts Government action over 'scandal' of police bail

A media campaign prompted by the treatment of journalists has led to strict new proposed time limits on police bail.

Since 2011 some 63 journalists have been arrested and many of these were kept on police bail for more than a year – left in legal limbo and often unable to work.

The Justice Delayed Justice Denied campaign against police bail was launched by Westbourne Communications in response to the treatment of Sun Whitehall editor Clodagh Hartley.

There was two and a half years between her initial arrest and her finally being cleared by a jury of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office by paying for stories on 26 November this year.

She spent a year on pre-charge bail and said during her trial that the stress of her prosecution had been such that she no longer intended to work as a journalist.

Her husband John Higginson is head of communications at Westbourne and began the bail campaign with a dinner on 15 September attended by journalists including Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun and Roy Greenslade of The Guardian.

The police bail campaign highlighted the fact that currently some 5,000 people have been held on police bail for more than six months, flouting police guidelines which say bail should be only be extended beyond a month under exceptional circumstances.

The campaign was backed financially by The Guardian and the Telegraph, two news organisations which have not had any journalists held on police bail.

The issue has gained widespread national newspaper coverage and also been covered by the Today programme on Radio 4 and Newsnight.

Two weeks ago four national newspapers carried a joint letter signed by 28 politicians, civil rights activists and former judges. The letter appeared simultaneously in Metro, the Telegraph, Guardian and Independent.

Today the Home Office announced a consultation on creating a 28-day time limit on use of police bail. Under the plan police bail can be extended, under exceptional circumstances, but after three months police must get the approval of a magistrate and after six months they must go before a crown court judge. It has been described as the biggest shake-up of the system in 30 years.

Home Secretary Theresa May said: "This Government is determined to support the police as they work tirelessly to bring justice to victims.

"But it cannot be right that people can spend months or even years on pre-charge bail with no oversight. That is why we launched a review to fundamentally re-examine the way pre-charge bail is used and authorised.

"I believe we need a statutory time limit in place to ensure people do not spend months or even years on bail, only for no charges to be brought. I encourage people to share their views and help shape these reforms."

Higginson told Press Gazette: "Clodagh asked me why I couldn’t do for journalists what we did for other groups. So we started the campaign. But the more I looked into it the more I realised this is not about journalists.

"Huge numbers of people have been caught up in this strange legal limbo where you have neither the rights of a civilian or those of someone who has been charged. There was no limit to the time someone could spend on police bail or the conditions the police could put on people’s freedom despite not even having the evidence to make a charge. It was clearly a scandal and needed fixing. I am extremely glad Theresa May has acted so fast on this."

JDJD spokesman Brian Paddick said: "We are extremely pleased that the Home Secretary is closing down this discrepancy in the law which has seen far too many people stuck in legal limbo for far too long. It is a fundamental axiom that justice delayed is justice denied. This change in the law will right this wrong."

Four journalists arrested in March 2013 on suspicion of involvement in phone-hacking, and one arrested in September 2012 by officers investigating computer hacking, remain on pre-charge police bail.

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