The number of rape victims waiting over a year for justice in the courts has risen more than five-fold during the pandemic, the public spending watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said delays from court backlogs would last for “many years”, resulting in more victims withdrawing from prosecutions, more cases collapsing and more alleged rapists pleading not guilty in a bid to exploit witnesses’ fading memories.
The number of victims waiting more than a year across all crimes has quadrupled, up 302 per cent from 2,830 on March 31 2020, to 11,379 cases on June 30 this year.
But rape and sexual assault victims have been hardest hit, increasing 435 per cent - from 246 to 1,316 - over the same period.
This is partly fuelled by the higher proportion of rape and sex cases going to trial because the alleged perpetrator pleads not guilty. These delays have been blamed for contributing to a fall in rape convictions to a record low of under two per cent of the growing number of offences.
But, according to the NAO, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) itself expects the “significant backlogs” to continue for several years, with the number of cases awaiting trial in the crown court remaining up to 27 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels by November 2024.
‘The longer victims wait for trial, the harder it can be to recover’
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Despite efforts to increase capacity in criminal courts, it looks likely that the backlog will remain a problem for many years.
“The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe and it is vital that the MoJ works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”
The crown court waits highlighted by the NAO only cover the time between a case being referred to it by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the trial. It does not include the time taken by the police investigation and CPS preparing the case.
Separate CPS figures on Thursday showed the delay between police first referring a case to the CPS and a decision to charge had increased from 155 days to 170.2 days - or nearly six months - in the space of a single quarter.
“Waiting longer to give evidence in trial is associated with more witnesses and victims withdrawing from the process, which may lead cases to collapse,” said the NAO.
“It may also affect the accuracy of their accounts as memories fade. Judges we spoke to also told us that defendants were more likely to plead not guilty if a trial is delayed.
“The longer victims wait for trial, the harder it can be for them to recover. For example, their lives may be put on hold as they wait for a trial date, while giving evidence may mean revisiting traumatic experiences.”
Rising backlog of cases at crown courts
The NAO said the crown court backlog had already increased by 23 per cent in the year before the pandemic, partly because the MoJ allocated insufficient court sitting days.
With trials shut down in the pandemic, the backlog rose by 50 per cent - from 41,045 in March 2020 to 60,692 in June 2021.
Without extra money, this could increase to 72,000 by 2024, according to MoJ projections.
The MoJ is pitching for an extra £500 million for the criminal courts in the spending review due next week. However, even with the additional cash, its bid to reduce the backlogs to between 48,000 and 52,000 by 2024 would require the use of part-time judges to “unprecedented levels,” said the NAO.
It came as CPS data showed it charged only 41 extra rape suspects this year, compared with last year. This would mean it would take 29 years to hit its target of returning prosecution rates to 2016 levels, according to the End Violence Against Women coalition.
The MoJ said the report acknowledged it had acted quickly in response to the pandemic. It said its rollout of remote video for trials and Nightingale courts had stabilised the backlog in the crown courts, while it was falling in magistrates.
Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, said new scorecards next month would hold every part of the criminal justice system to account.
They would “make sure there is no hiding place and no excuses", he said, adding: "Victims deserve to see more rape cases reaching the CPS and more prosecutions reaching court as swiftly as possible.”