The number of rape cases going through trials in court has depleted significantly during the pandemic.
A report by the National Audit Office has found that the number of sexual assault cases awaiting trial for more than a year rose from 246 to 1,316 – a 435% rise between March 2020 and June 2021.
With this backlog, it could take 18 years for the government to reach its target goal for solving rape crimes, estimates suggest.
Earlier in the year, stats showed that prosecutions for rape were also at a record low. There were 55,130 rapes recorded by police but only 2,120 prosecutions and 1,439 prosecutions in England and Wales between 2019 to 2020. Compared to three years ago, when 41,616 rape cases were recorded, with 5,190 prosecutions and 2,991 convictions.
In fact, since records began, March 2020 had the fewest prosecutions and convictions despite the number of rape cases increasing.
Part of the reason why there’s such a huge build up is due to the pandemic and a lack of jury service, explained the NAO. “Rape and serious sexual offence cases have been acutely affected,” they wrote in their report.
“Defendants accused of rape or serious sexual offences are typically more likely to plead not guilty compared with other offences. Cases with not guilty pleas typically take much longer to complete in the courts than cases where a defendant has pleaded guilty.
“Delays to jury trials have therefore disproportionately affected victims of these crimes: between 31 March 2020 and 30 June 2021, the number of sexual offence trial cases in the Crown Court backlog rose by 71% from 3,606 to 6,173, with cases waiting longer than a year increasing 435% from 246 to 1,316.”
The report found that waiting times rose most in London, with the average age of a case increasing by 63% from 164 days to 266 days.
Head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, 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 Ministry of Justice works effectively with its partners in the criminal justice system to minimise the delays to justice.”
To tackle such a huge issue, more resources are needed, the report said.
“The impact on victims, witnesses and defendants is severe.”
It said long-term recovery requires more funding from the Treasury, with the Ministry of Justice estimating that it needs approximately £500m for criminal courts and £1.7bn for legal aid, prisons and probation services.
But the report does recognise the government’s speed in setting up Covid-compliant courts, setting up Nightingale courtrooms and making premises safer.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman commented: “This meant that – in a matter of months – our buildings were made safe, remote technology was rolled out across all courts, and Nightingale courtrooms opened up and down the country to increase the space available for trials.
“We are already seeing the results, with outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts falling, and in the crown court the backlog stabilising.”
Others are less optimistic. Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said it was “hard to see even the green shoots of a recovery”.
She said: “Presently, the government’s stated ambition feels more like a pipe dream and victims will continue to be failed unless the CPS rapidly and urgently ups the ante.”