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The government has been accused of failing victims of crime by setting an unrealistic and doomed pledge to bring a record backlog of court cases in England and Wales under control, amid growing warnings that justice is now being seriously affected by the delays.
Calls are growing for the creation of an independent body to help deal with what have been described as “crisis levels” of unheard cases, amid concerns that some victims of sexual violence have waited three years for court dates and some offenders have received reduced sentences, once convicted, as a result of delays.
With the pandemic unfolding last summer, Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, suggested he wanted the growing courts backlog to be “sorted and manageable” by now. He has more recently said the backlog should be brought down to acceptable levels by Easter 2023. At present, the backlog in the crown courts still sits at an all-time high of 56,875 cases.
The nature of the cases in the backlog is also causing concern. Many are jury trials, which take the most time to complete. A model by the Institute for Government has found that, when adjusted to match the same case complexity as the pre-pandemic backlog, it now amounts to the equivalent of 70,000 cases.
There have also been other reports that victims are dropping cases because the process has dragged on for so long, sometimes as a result of delays in the police applying charges. Recent official figures revealed that the proportion of sexual offences resulting in convictions has plummeted to a five-year low and the conviction rate for sexual offences has fallen by more than 41%, with 10,000 fewer convictions since 2016.
David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said that last summer’s claims of clearing the backlog by this year had given “false hope” to victims. “He [Buckland] has dithered and delayed, leaving victims to abandon their faith in the justice system as crown court delays sit at record levels,” he said. Labour is calling for reduced juries, which are opposed by some in the legal profession, as well as the rapid extension of emergency “Nightingale courts” and more mass Covid-19 testing in courts.
Campaigners have also warned that, in some cases, long delays have led to self-harm and suicide because a court date is years away and victims feel trapped.
While the pandemic has made it impossible to resolve the backlog, Stephanie Boyce, Law Society of England and Wales president, said the crisis in the entire criminal justice system was actually “the result of decades of cuts and underfunding”. She added: “The criminal court backlogs mean that justice is being delayed for victims, witnesses and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years, with some trials now listed for 2023.”
James Mulholland, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, called for an independent watchdog for the courts system. “Reinstating a specialist independent oversight body for our courts after a 10-year absence offers a triple-win scenario: for the government department tasked to deliver justice; for the taxpayer who funds the whole system; and, also, most importantly, for the many members of the public compelled to travel through our courts as complainants, victims and witnesses or those accused of crime – individuals abandoned for years while the criminal proceedings in which they are involved are left in limbo.”
The Ministry of Justice said: “We are spending £450m to deliver speedier justice for victims and this is already having an impact – outstanding magistrates’ cases have fallen by 50,000 since last summer, and more jury trials are being heard every week. Scores of Nightingale courts have been opened alongside a 4,000% increase in video hearings to drive this recovery further, while we are investing record amounts in victim support and reviewing the entire response to rape and sexual violence to bring more offenders to justice.”
The Crown Prosecution Service said: “We are committed to making real, lasting improvements to how these horrific offences are handled, so that every victim will feel able to come forward with confidence that their complaint will be fully investigated and, where the evidence supports, charged and prosecuted.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Victims of crime suffer as backlog of court cases hits ‘crisis level’ | UK criminal justice