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How long can the police hold you for questioning?

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If you have been arrested by the police on suspicion of an offence, then the police can detain you in their custody for the purpose of questioning you. The actual questioning itself can take a relatively short time.

The shortest interview I have ever been in took three minutes, but most interviewing officers spend longer than that explaining the procedure. A series of interviews can take place over a number of days if you are held that long. The average interview is probably between half an hour and an hour long. This doesn’t meant that the police can only detain you for the length of the interview. The police are not usually in a position to interview someone straight away when they are arrested. Often an arrest takes place as an offence has just happened or is in the middle of happening.

As an example, think about a situation where the police are called to a report of people fighting on a Saturday night. As they arrive they can see the fight is still taking place and arrest those that they believe to be involved. Before they are in a position to interview those that they suspect have committed an offence, they would need to make sure that the suspects are fit to be interviewed. This might require them receiving treatment for any injuries, either by the nurse at the police station or by being taken to hospital if the injuries are serious. It might also require them having time to sober up if the suspects have been drinking. They might also need time to investigate what has happened. This might involve them viewing CCTV from where the fight took place or taking statements from those who saw it happen. Only when all of this is done will the police be ready to interview the suspects.

Once the interview has taken place, although the “questioning” has finished, the suspects are not released immediately. The interviewing officers will relay what has happened in interview to the custody sergeant and he will make a decision about what is to happen next – whether to release on bail, under investigation, to caution or refer to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging advice.

This whole process can take a long time. However, the police can only hold someone for questioning as long as the custody officer believes that the detention without charge is necessary. This means necessary to either secure or preserve evidence relating to an offence for which the suspect is under arrest (for example taking witness statements before the suspect has had a chance to tell them what to say) or to obtain such evidence by questioning them. Detention is reviewed after six hours and then again every nine hours in order to make sure that it continues to be necessary.

Ordinarily, the maximum that a suspect can be held without charge is 24 hours. However, this can be extended by a senior police officer by a further 12 hours. If the police need further time for questioning, they must apply to the magistrates for that further time, up to a total of 96 hours. This will usually only happen in the most serious or complex of investigations. If it is not serious, then the police will not normally be able to justify why the investigation cannot be carried out with the suspect on bail. If is not complex then the police will not normally be able to justify why they haven’t completed the investigations sooner. There are different rules that apply for terrorism cases, where up to 14 days detention for questioning is permitted, but again those cases are rarer still.  

Everyone who is held for questioning is, by the very definition, there because they have to be rather than because they want to be. The ability of the police to take away someone’s liberty for this time is a strong power that they possess over the individual. It is such a strong power that the individual is allowed certain rights to ensure that that power is not abused. One of the most (if not the most) important of these rights is the right to legal advice. The police have to remind you when you are held for questioning that you have the right to legal advice. If you find yourself in the position of being held for questioning make sure you enforce that right. If your solicitor does not know that you are at the police station, he cannot help you. Call Stephensons 0175 321 6399 or complete our online enquiry form.

By Faye Dutson, executive fee earner in the criminal litigation team

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