What is bail?
When someone is subject to criminal proceedings, they can be kept in custody (prison) until their court appearance, or released on ‘bail’. This has long been a historical alternative to keeping people in custody before a trial.
How does it work?
Almost all criminal cases start at the police station with someone being arrested. After interviewing a suspect, the police can either decide that they can charge him, or decide that there is no evidence that he has committed an offence and release him without charge, or decided that more enquiries are needed, in which case he can be released on bail to a further date whilst these enquiries are being undertaken.
Once someone is charged, they can be bailed by the police or by the court and this can be with or without conditions.
Is there a difference between bail before charge and bail after?
Yes. See here for fuller details of what happens at the police station. The rest of this applies to bail as it relates to after someone has been charged by the police.
What test is applied?
There is generally a ‘presumption of bail’ which means that even if the offence is serious, or someone has been in trouble a lot before, the starting point will be that it is for the prosecutor to show that there are substantial reasons that bail should not be granted. The reasons that bail can be refused are set out in Sch 1 Bail Act 1976, but the main ones in practice are that the Defendant :
- will not turn up to Court when he is supposed to
- will commit an offence whilst on bail
- will interfere with the course of justice – for example by trying to get a witness to change their story
If the offence is one that does not carry a prison sentence then different considerations apply.
When a Court is assessing this, they will look at things such as how serious the offence is, how strong the evidence is, what sort of ties to the local community the person has.
What conditions can be applied?
The Court can add any conditions to the bail, this is a set of requirements that must relate to the grounds for the refusal of bail. These can be a ‘one off” such as surrendering a passport to ensure that someone can’t flee the country, or continuing one such as not contacting a certain person.
Common conditions are:
- Exclusion from a certain area (generally where the witnesses live or where the offence was committed)
- Not to contact some or all of the witnesses
- A nighttime curfew
- Signing on at the police station at regular intervals
- Surety/Security – money lodged with the Court of promised to the Court if the person doesn’t turn up to court
What happens if you break them?
A police officer can arrest someone who is on bail if they breach any of their conditions of bail (or the police office believes that it is reasonably likely that they will do and/or will not turn up to court). If this happens then they have to be brought before a magistrates court within 24 hours of the arrest (Sundays excluded). Even if the case is in the Crown Court, then the breach will still go to the magistrates court (unless there is a hearing already scheduled in the Crown Court in the 24 hours of the arrest).
Breach bail is not a criminal offence, so you can never be sentenced for it. But if the Court is satisfied that someone has breached the conditions then they can be remanded (kept) in custody until the trial.
Not turning up to court however is a criminal offence (under s6 Bail Act). Someone will only be guilty if they did not have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for coming. The maximum sentence is 3 months in the magistrates court and 12 months in the Crown Court. The Sentencing Guidelines Council have issued guidelines for sentencing.