Trial delays are a criminal injustice

Crown Prosecution Service logo
Crown Prosecution Service logo

Britain has grown gloomily accustomed to failures within our criminal-justice system. Shoplifting was once considered a relatively serious crime, but it has slipped so far down the priority list that last year, out of sheer desperation, shopkeepers grouped together to start paying the police to investigate thefts from their stores.

Alongside the deepening sense that the police cannot fulfil their primary functions are the repeated warnings that Britain’s criminal courts are unable to dispense justice efficiently. Such is the state of our bursting prison estate that, last October, judges were told to hand suspended sentences to offenders they would otherwise have sent to prison. There is also a chronic shortage of upcoming barristers to replace experienced judges who are retiring, exacerbating the backlog.

It is against this backdrop that the Telegraph today reports of a woman facing a five and a half year wait for justice after her alleged rapist’s trial was delayed. The victim has described the anguish of preparing to go to court and give evidence, only to be informed that the proceedings would be postponed just hours before they were due to begin. This news will shock, but the case is not unique. A major report by the charity Rape Crisis last year revealed that rape and sexual-abuse victims were facing delays of up to eight years.

The old legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied will be felt acutely by these victims, who will worry the system is working against them. After taking the brave step to come forward and report an assault, some have reached such depths of despair that they have become suicidal. Too many have simply given up, allowing their alleged attackers to walk free. The fear must be that other women are then being put at risk.

Over the past 12 months, the Labour Party has sought to advance the narrative that the Tories are soft on crime. Figures on the percentage of reports of rape resulting in a charge or summons give this credence: Home Office data showed that in the year to June 2021 just 1.4 per cent of reported attacks had been prosecuted in England and Wales, leading to the warning that rape had been “effectively decriminalised”. Even before the pandemic, it was only a few percentage points higher.

We now have a system unfit for purpose, where innocent people live in fear, victim suffering is prolonged and alleged perpetrators evade justice. This issue, which extends beyond sexual offences, can no longer be avoided.

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