How long do police have to charge you with and investigate a crime in the UK?

14th August 2019 | Legal Insights & Resources|

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 23rd August 2023

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Under the Policing and Crime Act 2017, how long the police have to charge you depends on the severity of the offence. Summary only offences like common assault often have a 6-month time limit, while the most serious offences like historic sexual abuse have none. Generally, you can only be held at a police station for 24 hours (though there are exceptions such as offences committed under the Terrorism Act). If you are released under investigation you will be notified of the outcome in due course.

someone getting arrested

The criminal offence you are suspected of committing or being involved in committing will determine how long the police have to charge you with a crime in the UK.

How long after a crime can you be charged in the UK?

There is no time limit on when many cases – including historic sexual abuse accusations – can be prosecuted in the UK. However, for those offences that are considered summary-only, there are strict time limits (often 6 months) albeit this area of the law can become complicated as to when the 6 month period starts and when it stops.

It is vital to ensure that you obtain expert legal advice as there are occasions when the police may try and take a case to court even though it is out of the permitted time period.

After being arrested you will be held in police custody, during which time you will be interviewed under police caution. This is the same interview as if you were there voluntarily.

How long can the police hold someone in custody?

In accordance with UK law, if you have been arrested, the police can detain you in custody for a maximum of 24 hours before they must either charge you with the offence, release you under police bail to return at a later date for further questioning, or release you without charge.

There are exceptions to this 24 hour limit and the police can apply to keep you in custody for up to 36 or 96 hours if you are suspected of committing a particularly serious crime such as murder.

If you’re arrested under the Terrorism Act, you can be held by the police without charge for up to 14 days.

If, following your interview, the police feel they have sufficient evidence to charge you with the offence, you will be charged at the police station.

You will be given a charge sheet detailing the offence, then informed if you will be released on police bail, or alternatively detained on remand until the first available court date, which is normally the next working day at the latest. At this stage, the court will then review the police decision to keep you in custody and the court can determine whether you should be released or not.

If you are released on police bail, you must meet certain conditions of bail. If you fail to do so, you could be arrested, at which stage you would have your bail reviewed and you could be kept in custody.  

What happens if I have been released under investigation?

You may be ‘released under investigation’ (RUI) by the police following an interview, rather than being given a bail date upon which you are obliged to return to the police station.

If you have been released under investigation you will have been released from custody without charge, with no obligation to return to the police station on bail to provide any further evidence for the offence for which you were questioned for.

However, even once you have been released, the police investigation against you will continue, with further evidence being collected and investigations carried out.

During the period of investigation, you may be required to speak to a police officer, or you may even be arrested again. In some instances, the police may also contact you to make an appointment to attend the police station for a further interview.

Many contributing factors determine how long a police investigation will take and, as such, there is no fixed amount of time associated with an investigation.

How long the investigation takes will depend on the type of offence, any witness evidence and your own evidence, amongst other factors.

You will be notified  – at an unspecified point in the future – of the outcome of the investigation. Once the investigation is concluded, the police should notify you of the outcome.

Once the investigation is concluded you will either:

  • Receive a letter stating that no further action  will be taken
  • Receive a postal requisition (previously known as a court summons) to attend the magistrates’ court

How long does it take to get a no further action letter?

No Further Action (NFA) is where there is insufficient evidence to refer a case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for them to prosecute or the CPS have declined to authorise a charge. If you receive an NFA letter, the decision has been made to cease the investigation. This may still be visible to employers if you apply for a job requiring a DBS check.

The letter can take anywhere between a few hours and months to arrive, depending on how far into the prosecution process your case went.

The Policing and Crime Act 2017

Prior to the introduction of The Policing and Crime Act 2017, if you were suspected of committing a criminal offence you could find yourself on bail for months, or even years.

You would receive repeated bail to return dates from the police, often with no tangible evidence that progress in the investigation had been made.

The Act brought about changes to the way the police were required to deal with individuals who have been arrested with the need for further investigation, specifying certain time limits for the police to carry out an investigation.

How long can you be under investigation by police?

As a result of these time limits, the police often now release suspects under investigation rather than releasing them on police bail. The downside to this is that investigations now have no specific end date and can drag on for much longer with no real check and balance. Sometimes the only thing you will receive after waiting for many months is confirmation of whether a case will proceed to court. If you do receive such a notice, it is vital that you then seek expert legal advice even if you did seek advice from the police duty solicitor at the time.

The Act specifies a statutory maximum police custody time limit – known as the pre-charge bail limit – of up to 28 days, with the exception of certain cases.

Unless this bail period has been lawfully extended, it is not possible to keep someone on bail after the time period has elapsed. As a result of this new law, the police may release a suspect under investigation within the 28 day limit, telling them that they still under investigation but not on bail.

If you are affected by the new bail limit, or have been arrested and released under investigation, it is extremely important that you are aware of your rights and the relevant legal timescales and procedures.

It is recommended that you seek expert legal advice from a specialist team of criminal defence solicitors who are experienced in dealing with this area of the law.

How long do police keep evidence in the UK?

If a case is open, police can keep evidence for long as they need it for their investigations. So how long does a police investigation take in the UK? This depends upon a wide variety of factors, including the severity of the alleged crime.

If the CPS decides to charge you, evidence will certainly be kept until the case comes to one of three possible conclusions:

  • Charges are dropped
  • Acquittal
  • Conviction

Get in touch with us for advice on the law and your rights if you have been charged with a crime in the UK.

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