Coronavirus: Delays to trials 'prolong trauma' for victims

By Sam Francis
BBC News, London

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
By June there was backlog of 42,707 outstanding crown court cases in England and Wales

Victims of crime say delays to court cases caused by coronavirus are preventing them from processing the trauma of their abuse.

New figures show the backlog of crown court cases in England and Wales reached 42,707 in June, a 25% increase compared to the same period last year.

One woman said she had not "been able to properly live" while she waited for her case to be heard.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said it was investing in courts and more staff.

Between April and June there were 124 crown court trials, compared with 4,911 in the first quarter.

Alex - not their real name - was assaulted in an alleged transphobic attack in 2019.

The start of the trial of their accused has been pushed back twice as courts deal with coronavirus restrictions. They have not been given a new court date.

Image source, Getty Images
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Sam is worried further delays could lead to the case of her accused collapsing

"I don't want to think about it, but I'm forced to. It's always there it's hanging over me," Alex said.

They said after the attack they were too scared to go outside.

"Friends had to come to get me to leave the house because I couldn't leave the house."

Since then Alex said their mental health has improved. But the delay to their court date "prolongs the feeling of isolation and suspicion".

"If you can't have confidence in legal proceedings where's the confidence I won't be assaulted again?

"I can't help but fight a sense that if it really mattered it would get done."

Almost half of all courts were closed in March 2020, with jury trials paused to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Other hearings were able to take place using remote technology, with courts prioritising which cases to hear.

Some jury trials in England and Wales resumed in May, after almost two months on hold.

Nearly all courts are now open to the public again.

A series of "Nightingale Courts" have been also been held in theatres and hotels to help ease the backlog.

Image source, Alamy
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London's Independent Victims Commissioner says delays were due to "a lack of investment in our courts".

Sam - not her real name - worries any more delays will mean her trial, a complicated case including multiple victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of a group of men, will collapse.

Three days before the proceedings were due to start in the summer, the case was pushed back to mid-2021. It has since been brought forward to the start of 2021.

"I have worked so hard to get my perpetrators convicted," she said.

"My home life now revolves around the case. I haven't been able to properly live. I need justice so I can process the trauma again.

"The trial has brought up a lot of feelings about times when I was abused. The trauma is so fresh.

"I'm having more flashbacks and more paranoia than ever."

Image source, The Lowry
Image caption,
The Lowry's Quays Theatre in Salford is being converted into a working court room

Claire Waxman, London's Independent Victims commissioner, said delays were due to "a lack of investment in our courts".

She is helping support both Sam and Alex.

"It has simply taken far too long for Covid safety measures to be implemented in courts," Ms Waxman said.

"It's unacceptable that there have been significant delays in installing plexiglass when supermarkets and other workplaces have achieved this within a matter of days.

"I am also seriously concerned that the increasing delays mean that victims will decide to opt-out of the criminal justice process altogether, denying them the justice they deserve."

An MoJ spokesperson said: "We are seeing positive early signs stemming from our work to keep the justice system moving during the pandemic.

"The number of outstanding magistrates' cases are falling, while crown courts are listing more than 100 jury trials per week.

"To continue this recovery we are investing an additional £80m in our courts, with eight more Nightingale Courts, 1,600 new staff and more technology to boost our capacity."