A rape victim who will have been waiting five years by the time her case comes to court has said navigating the justice process has had a worse impact on her mental health than the crime itself, leaving her feeling “suicidal”.
The woman, known as Debbie, recently had her case listed but it was pulled the day before she was due to appear in court. She now faces a further eight-month wait.
She is among thousands of victims, witnesses and defendants affected by the record-high backlog of 58,653 crown court cases in England and Wales, set to further increase this summer amid strikes by barristers.
The industrial action, scheduled to resume on 1 August, comes amid calls for “radical action” to support rape victims living in limbo and concerns that a new pilot proposed by the government as part of “efforts to drive up prosecutions and convictions” is a “sticking plaster” that will have little impact.
Rape victims will receive enhanced support at three crown courts – Leeds, Newcastle and Snaresbrook in London – in a pilot scheme aimed at “supporting victims, tacking the backlog and reducing delays”.
The courtrooms, which will continue to hear other cases, will be equipped with video technology allowing pre-recorded evidence of rape survivors to be shown, sparing victims the trauma of attending in person. Court staff, police and prosecutors will receive specialist trauma training as part of the pilot to roll out in October.
But London victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman has questioned how effective the initiative will be.
“What we need are dedicated rape and sexual violence courts on a much larger scale,” she said.
“You can’t do those things without long-term investment. The system is chronically underfunded. Ultimately, the pilot won’t have much impact on the backlog because it’s a sticking plaster on a sinking ship. We need radical change. The situation is dire.” The stress of the delays for the survivors of sexual violence is exacerbated by potential complications with accessing counselling.
For Debbie, some limited therapy was helpful, but she is unable to get long-term support ahead of the trial due to concerns from the therapy provider about notes being requested by the police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
“I wanted to withdraw as I was in desperate need of therapy as I was worried I’d kill myself and needed access to services I couldn’t access while the case was ongoing,” she said. She has already lost a lot of income due to being unable to work consistently. “Reporting the rape and the aftermath has driven me to suicidal thoughts, manic depression, severe anxiety, an inability to connect with people and an extreme distrust of the justice system,” she explained.
Before the rape Debbie reported stalking behaviours by the same perpetrator and doesn’t feel the police took appropriate action. “I feel like I’ve slipped through the cracks of the justice system,” she said. “I’ve been depressed now for so long from this case and I feel like this is just who I am going to be forever now.”
Kirsty Brimelow, vice-chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said government policies were effectively redundant without the specialist barristers required to represent victims and defendants in these cases.
“Sexual offence cases require a particular skillset, but the pay has become so bad barristers are refusing to take them on,” she said. “There are not sufficient barristers to defend or prosecute – a double disaster for the complainants of rape and those accused who might not be guilty.”
Criminal barristers are due to receive a 15% fee rise from the end of September, earning £7,000 more per year, according to the government.
But there has been anger the proposed pay rise will not be made effective immediately and will only apply to new cases - not the 58,653 case backlog.
Brimelow says: “The £7,000 figure is misleading because it’s based on the income of the highest earning advocates. The average annual income for a junior criminal barrister is £12,200, so the 15% uplift would amount to an extra £1,830.”
New police-recorded crime data shows the number of rape offences (70,330) and the number of all sexual offences (19,683) for the year ending March 2022 are at the highest levels since present records began in 2002-03.
The government says it has introduced a raft of measures to speed up justice for victims including two new “super courtrooms” in Manchester and Loughborough allowing for up to an extra 250 cases a year to be heard across England and Wales.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said rape convictions “are up by more than a quarter on pre-pandemic levels” and the government was “recruiting more independent sexual violence advisers for victims.”
Siobhan Blake, CPS lead for rape and serious sexual assault prosecutions, urged victims not to delay therapy adding: “Balancing a victim’s right to privacy with a suspect’s right to a fair trial is a sensitive issue. Therapy notes should only be requested where relevant and how they may be used must be explained from the outset.”