Police have been accused of ‘draconian’ abuses of power for using bail powers to ban innocent people from legal protests.
Since 2008, almost 800 people have been arrested, bailed and banned from public demonstrations in the days before they were due to take place.
After the protests finished, more than eight out of ten of them were then released without being charged for any crime.
While some say the police action prevents unrest at volatile demonstrations, critics accused officers of stepping way beyond the mark and demanded a change in the law.
The revelation has come as the Government is beginning a consultation on a widespread change in rules surrounding police bail.
Last week, ministers set out plans to reform the law so bail is capped at 28 days to end the ‘scandal’ of people languishing in a legal limbo.
There is currently no time limit on pre-charge bail, so police can roll it on for years while gathering evidence.
People kept on bail in this way can lose their careers and have their lives wrecked by stress, undermining the principle of citizens being innocent until proven guilty.
Some 855 people have been banned from protesting by police forces in England and Wales since 2008 because of bail conditions.
In just 123 of these cases detectives were later able to convince prosecutors that there was enough evidence – and that it was in the public interest – to bring charges.
The figures, from Freedom of Information requests and legal groups, show about 85 per cent of those barred from protesting when bailed have not been subsequently charged with any crime.
Simon Pook, of Robert Lizar solicitors, told the Guardian the bail conditions were ‘draconian’ and breached people’s rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
Rachel Harger, of leading human rights law firm Bindmans, added: ‘Bail is becoming an instrument that is being used by people without recourse to the judicial process. It is to essentially punish protesters and curb their right to demonstrate.
‘It is effectively the police conducting their own extra-judicial justice without going to court.’
Officers do not need permission from a court to hand out protest bans to those on bail, and there is no limit to how long someone can be subject to pre-charge bail.
If the ban is ignored, the protester can be arrested for breaching the terms of their bail conditions.
According to the Guardian, about 500 people have been banned from protests by the Metropolitan Police since 2008, but only about 15 were later charged with a crime.
Some 120 people have also been banned by City of London, Essex and Sussex police forces, who then charged an average of just one in seven.
Greater Manchester police gave post-charge protest bans to 250 people involved in the Barton Moss anti-fracking demonstration. Their lawyer said a court found the bans too restrictive.
Kelly Rogers said she was one of ten protesters who have been arrested and given a ‘blanket ban on all protests’ by West Midlands Police.
She was never charged with a criminal offence but was bailed ahead of a demonstration, with conditions stopping her entering a university, congregating with groups of more than ten people and associating with the others who had been arrested.
‘Ultimately, their only aim could have been to stop us protesting again, even though it is our right to do so,’ she said.
Rachel Robinson, policy officer for human rights group Liberty, added: ‘The lack of limits on police bail make it liable to abuse and misuse, and can act to frustrate, rather than further, prosecutions.
‘Its use against protesters raises particular concerns, potentially chilling peaceful dissent for protracted periods without any prospect of criminal conviction.’
Campaign group The Network for Police Monitoring said: ‘Police bail is used as a means of disrupting protest activity without the inconvenience of dealing with a formal legal process.
‘As a result of the police’s long track record of misusing pre-charge conditions against protesters in an irresponsible way, we believe the only solution is the complete withdrawal of this power for all protest-related offences.’
Policing minister Mike Penning said: ‘The home secretary has been clear that it is wrong for people to spend months, or even years, on police bail with no judicial oversight or accountability.
‘In parallel, the College of Policing is developing evidence-based guidance to bring consistency, transparency and rigour to the way in which pre-charge bail is used in criminal investigations.’
The Association of Chief Police Officers did not respond to a request for comment.