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Stalled justice for rape - the failure of the criminal justice system

Kirsty Brimelow KC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, highlights there is a “crisis in the criminal justice system”, further explaining that “barristers have left, courts are in disrepair and complainants, witnesses and defendants suffer”. Figures released show that there are 65,000 cases which await trial in the Crown Court, an increase of 25,000 since the Covid-19 Pandemic. A report published by Rape Crisis England and Wales(2023), specified that of this backlog of cases, 7859 are sexual offence cases and 1851 adult rape cases. Claire Waxman, London's first Victims Commissioner, expressed this exposes the “fundamental issues” in the criminal justice system.

Data from a Freedom of Information request to HM Courts and Tribunal Service further demonstrates that the delay of rape trials has more than doubled from 2019-2020 to 2021-2022. More specifically the frequency of a trial being delayed at least once increased by 133%, and shockingly it was also found that there were five time more trials which has been rescheduled six or more times. It was also revealed that many rape cases are not even allocated a specific court or judge and are listed as ‘floater trials’, undermining the severity of the crime committed.

Such delays have a profound impact on victims resulting in a breakdown of mental health and in some cases, suicide. One of the most concerning impacts of the backlog is that due to the long wait times, individuals often feel no longer able to pursue the process, leaving them without justice and perpetrators in society free to reoffend. Figures released by the Home Office demonstrate that between April and December 2022, 50,000 rape offences in England and Wales were reported to the police, 20,000 of these are still in investigation and 40% are no longer available to be pursued due to victims withdrawing their proceedings. ‘Ronnie’, a survivor who chose to no longer pursue her case, testified to Rape Crisis England and Wales, that after waiting 8 years and her case still not going to court was unacceptable.

The Chief Executive Officer of Rape Crisis England and Wales says these delays “marginalise[s] victims and survivors, who already feel de-prioritised in an imbalanced system”. She advocates for “specialist sexual violence and abuse courts, where court staff and judiciary would have trauma-informed training” and she further demands for ‘priority listing’ to be provided to rape and sexual abuse cases.

In March, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice announced the government was investing £477 million by 2025, in order to ease the backlog and improve national responses to rape. They further highlighted the importance for changes in the system so victims can have “confidence” and “feel supported”. They are equally taking active steps towards remedying the issues, producing the launch of a 24/7 helpline with Rape Crisis as an example.

Despite the government saying that it is on track with the goals set out in their end-to-end rape review for England and Wales from two years ago, End Violence Against Women Coalition says that they have “barely scratched the surface”. A survey in 2022 found that only 9% of victims had confidence in the courts effectively dealing with their case, and 34% admitted they would not report a crime again. Baroness Newlove expressed that these figures are deeply concerning and labels the reports as a “wake-up call” that “must not be shrugged off”.

However, a report by several organisations has recognised that in this period, amongst the vast issues faced, there have been moves towards the development of specialist rape courts and a faster response by police to rape claims via phone.

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women's Justice clarifies that although there have been some steps of positive change in the system, “only a small minority of those who report rape will see their cases prosecuted”. Amelia Handy, head of policy and public affairs at Rape Crisis England and Wales exclaims that "The pace of change must pick up. Victims and survivors of these highly traumatic crimes deserve justice now."

E. Bieler


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