Rape and domestic violence cases will be among the worst hit by the growing backlog of criminal cases, the crime commissioner for England’s second biggest police force has warned.
Simon Foster, the Labour commissioner for West Midlands Police, said the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated a decade of underfunding and ‘reckless neglect’ of the justice system.
Ministry of Justice figures show that the number of outstanding crown court cases – which had already reached record levels by February last year – has swelled to more than 57,000 following delays and court closures stemming from the pandemic.
Mr Foster said the huge backlog ‘undermines the credibility of the justice system’ and warned cases could collapse due to lengthy delays.
In an interview with The Guardian, he said: ‘It’s particularly domestic abuse, violence against women and rape cases that are going to be at serious risk.
‘That is a real concern to me. Are we going to see a further fall in prosecution rates as a consequence of trials not remaining sustainable for all that time?’
The comments come ahead of the expected publication of the government’s long-awaited review into rape prosecutions.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said it would include an ‘ambitious plan of action to address the way the criminal justice system responds to this sickening crime’.
Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, told the newspaper that during lockdown some female complainants were only told their trial had been postponed on the day it had been due to be heard.
Mr Buckland vowed last week to get the justice system ‘firing on all cylinders’ in order to tackle the ‘historically high’ backlog.
In a speech to the Law Society of England and Wales on Friday, he promised the Government would continue to make ‘big decisions’ – like looking at extending court sitting hours – and give the system ‘all the support it needs to start moving at pace once again’.
Reflecting on the effect Covid-19 had on courts when the pandemic took hold, he said some cases were ‘unavoidably delayed’ but that extra funding and other measures, like opening nightingale courts and rolling out widespread use of video hearings, helped keep the justice system moving.
Mr Buckland said: ‘The action we took then means that cases are being dealt with now at around pre-pandemic levels almost across the board in the courts and tribunals estate.
‘The number of cases waiting to be heard in the criminal courts right now is at historically high levels.
‘That cannot – and will not – be allowed to continue.’
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