Nicola Bulley: What happens next?

The body of the missing dog walker has been discovered, but questions remain over police conduct during the search.

Nicola Bulley has been missing for three weeks and was last seen walking her dog, Willow.
Nicola Bulley's body was discovered a mile from the area where she went missing. (PA)

The body of missing dog walker Nicola Bulley was discovered by members of the public over the weekend, with police confirming her identity on Monday.

Bulley, 45, was missing for three weeks, and her family had made desperate appeals to the public for any information, after she vanished sometime between her last sighting at 9.10am on 27 January and her phone being discovered on a bench around 20 minutes later.

During the investigation into her disappearance, online sleuths descended on the small Lancashire village of St.Michael on Wyre, near where she was last seen walking her dog, and police faced condemnation for sharing intimate details about the missing mortgage broker.

Lancashire Police are now the subject of an internal investigation, while the police watchdog has also made contact with the force. Home Secretary Suella Braverman is among the MPs demanding answers over the case.

Watch: Braverman awaiting result of police review of handling of Nicola Bulley case

After Bulley was discovered at the side of the river a mile from where she disappeared, her family released an emotional statement about the woman who was "the centre of our world", also hitting out at press and members of the public who "vilified" Bulley's friends and family.

Read on to find out what will happen next in the investigation:

Police probe

Lancashire Police face at least one investigation into their conduct during the course of the investigation after revealing that the missing woman had struggled with alcohol and menopause. The force has set a date for an internal review, while the police watchdog has been in touch with Lancashire Constabulary but is yet to announce if it will be conducting its own investigation.

Former Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset, Martyn Underhill, is among those calling for a full investigation. He told The Telegraph: "You've got to bring in an external force to look at the lines of inquiry, search strategy, the search of the river and how they've handled the media.

Former detective Martyn Underhill said the involvement of a third party could not be ruled out in the case of missing Nicola Bulley.
Former detective Martyn Underhill said the involvement of a third party could not be ruled out in the case of missing Nicola Bulley.
Body found in search for Nicola Bulley: A map showing the search area. (PA)
Body found in search for Nicola Bulley: A map showing the search area. (PA)

"On the face of it, to find a body less than a mile from where she was missing suggests something went wrong," he added.

Police are also facing questions from the information commissioner, which queried whether Bulley's struggles with alcohol needed to be shared with the public.

At the time, it commented: "Police can disclose information to protect the public and investigate crime, but they would need to be able to demonstrate such disclosure was necessary", and said it would ask Lancashire Police to explain the decision "in due course".

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is also conducting an investigation into contact Lancashire Police had with Bulley before she went missing, confirming it would be looking into the "welfare check" police made at the family home on 10 January.

Police did not reveal they had been in contact with Bulley prior to her disappearance until almost three weeks into the case, when they also disclosed "vulnerabilities" about the missing woman.

Home Secretary involvement

Suella Braverman made it clear that she was concerned with how police had handled sensitive information related to the missing woman. Having reached out to Lancashire Police in the wake of the controversial press conference, she later said she was not "wholly satisfied" with the response she received.

In a statement on Monday, following the discovery of a body close to where Bulley was last seen, Braverman said: “I did have concerns earlier in the week about some of the elements relating to the release of personal information of Nicola Bulley into the public domain.

“I raised those concerns with the chief constable – I wasn’t wholly satisfied, I have to say, with some of the responses I got, but it is a matter for the police themselves.”

The home secretary added that the police must conclude their investigation "and then we will see what the investigations and inquiries come back with", with no clear indication of the action she would take going forward.

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain December 6, 2022. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman suggested the police must conclude their investigation before any action on conduct was taken. (Reuters)

Media spotlight

The actions of several members of the media and public have been widely condemned after the Bulley family revealed in a statement that they had been contacted by ITV and Sky News - despite their pleas for privacy - after a body was discovered close to where Bulley went missing.

"It saddens us to think that one day we will have to explain to them [Bulley's children] that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family. This is absolutely appalling, they have to be held accountable, this cannot happen to another family," the family said.

"We tried last night to take in what we had been told in the day, only to have Sky News and ITV making contact with us directly when we expressly asked for privacy. They again, have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles. It is shameful they have acted in this way. Leave us alone now."

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has not yet commented on whether it will be looking into the matter.

Online sleuths

Hundreds of people posting to TikTok and YouTube accounts descended on the usually sleepy village of St.Michael's on Wyre following Bulley's disappearance, with residents complaining that people were trying to get into their homes, peering through their windows and taking body-camera footage of their properties.

The sheer volume of visitors prompted police to issue a 48-hour dispersal order during the investigation, while one YouTuber was arrested while taking footage at the scene.

Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor, sad his "biggest concern" during the investigation was what the online community had been doing, and suggested that the government should look at a new offence to prosecute people who share false information online.

He told TalkTV: "The armchair sleuths, the conspiracy theorists... the defamation. If I were advising the family, I would be advising them to get some lawyers here because there were some significant allegations made which were found to be totally unfounded and despicable actually."

Inquest and funeral

An inquest will be held to establish a likely cause of death in the case, which police have thus far said they are treating as unexplained - not offering any further explanation as to what they believe happened prior to Bulley being found in the river.

Following the inquest, a funeral will be held. No details have yet been released, but it is thought the family will keep the service private given the huge amount of attention the case has received over the past few weeks.

Read more about the investigation into Nicola Bulley's disappearance:

'Leave us alone': Nicola Bulley's family criticise Sky and ITV's intrusive coverage (Yahoo News UK, 5-min read)

Nicola Bulley’s family say she can finally ‘rest’, as questions remain over case (Lancashire Telegraph, 4-min read)

Man who says he found Nicola Bulley’s body claims ‘psychic gift’ led to discovery (The Independent, 2-min read)