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Criminals are gaming the system by pleading not guilty and relying on crippling trial delays to evade justice, The Independent has been told.
Laying bare the extent of the crisis in the courts, figures obtained by this publication suggest the number of cases waiting more than three years for a verdict has skyrocketed at least sevenfold since 2019 to exceed 1,280 last June.
As delays have soared, the proportion of early guilty pleas has plummeted – falling by nearly half in four years – as suspects try to manipulate the system.
And as the backlog grows, victims of rape and sexual assault have described the pain of their trauma being dragged out over years, as they wait for their cases to be pursued.
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A record 134 rape cases were among the 5,776 trials waiting more than two years as of September, analysis by The Independent has found.
That compares to just 10 rape cases out of the 344 hit by the same length of delay in 2019. The number of other sexual offence cases delayed for more than two years has also soared, from 38 five years ago to an all-time high of 701.
The proportion of suspects pleading guilty pre-trial or at the first crown court hearing has fallen from 71 per cent in 2019 – when the backlog was at its lowest – to 48 per cent in the year to September.
Bar Council chair Sam Townend KC said the fall in guilty pleas suggests an increasing trend of criminals trying to manipulate the justice system to avoid conviction and imprisonment.
“Young criminal men, who should be pleading guilty at an early stage, become more aware that their day of reckoning is getting pushed back further and further and, because of the high rate of ineffective trials, perhaps may never come at all,” he told The Independent.
“Victims and witnesses are becoming ever more disillusioned or simply give up. My concern is of a complete collapse in public confidence in the system.”
Fewer suspects pleading guilty is driving court backlog
The president of the courts system has also cited fewer people pleading guilty as a key driver of the backlogs.
“That may be a vicious circle,” the lady chief justice Baroness Carr told MPs. “It might be because of delays, so people decide they are going to plead not guilty and see what happens down the line.”
The record 12,000 serious sexual offence cases stuck in the backlog could also be skewing the guilty plea rate, with defendants typically pleading not guilty to such charges given their damaging nature, the Criminal Bar Association said.
Barrister Rebecca Upton said prosecutors often fail to provide evidence to lawyers the recommended week in advance of a defendant’s pre-trial plea hearing, potentially leading suspects to believe they have a better chance of acquittal.
“An effective criminal justice system means that perpetrators plead guilty early for a discounted sentence and to start the process of rehabilitation,” added Mr Townend. “This stops victims and witnesses having to go through the harrowing experience of reliving the crime when giving evidence and it also saves the taxpayer the costs of trial and preparation.”
The data also showed that the number of robbery cases waiting years for a verdict shot up from just two to 200 over the same period, while those involving violent crimes rose from 31 to 1,357, having both hit record highs last year.
Victims’ commissioner Baroness Newlove said the data uncovered by The Independent “illustrates the stark reality of chronic and unacceptable delay in our justice system”.
“Three years is simply too long for anyone to have to wait for justice; no victim should be expected to put their life on hold for an indefinite period,” Baroness Newlove said. “Many will conclude they are better off withdrawing from the process, leaving them with no resolution and society without justice.”
This grim warning was echoed by a sexual violence survivor who has been waiting two years for her trial in the north of England to conclude. She said the delays have left her questioning “whether there was any point in reporting my case in the first place”.
“I had mentally prepared myself last year for my initial court date, only to be informed on the day that it was getting delayed,” she told The Independent. “The longer the trial is delayed, the longer I have to wait to fully move on from what happened to me. My anxiety has also increased as my new trial date is almost a year later.”
The backlogs are also fuelling the prison overcrowding crisis, with the remand population at a record high. In September, as many as 365 court cases waiting over three years for a verdict involved jailed suspects, up from just 36 in 2019, data obtained by The Independent under freedom of information laws showed.
While the data suggests there were 297 trials involving remanded suspects backlogged for three to four years, 50 waiting four to five years, and 18 waiting over five years, the Ministry of Justice warns its five-year figures are particularly prone to error and cannot be trusted.
Warning that “we cannot continue in this crisis”, Prison Officers’ Association chief Steve Gillan said: “These figures demonstrate the crisis the criminal justice system is in, which in turn puts prisons under enormous pressure, and it’s POA members left picking up the pieces with a high level of assaults, self-harm and suicides.”
Even if bailed, suspects spend years under the threat of conviction because of the delays. Of the 1,051 cases backlogged for between three and four years, up from just 48 in 2019, data shows 61 involved theft, 187 were drug-related and 50 public order offences.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Many of the cases cited will have now been completed but not closed in our data systems – as such, these figures do not accurately reflect the current picture.
“The most recent figures show more criminal cases are now reaching the crown court than at any point over the last two years, due to the raft of measures we’ve introduced to let courts run at full throttle, recruit more judges and invest more in our courts.”
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