London’s courts could be “crippled” by a wave of new prosecutions from the government’s review of rape allegations without urgent long-term investment, the Justice Secretary has been told.
Claire Waxman, the Independent Victims’ Commissioner for London, issued the stark warning that the capital’s courts and the availability of lawyers and judges could be overwhelmed by a surge of new cases.
In a letter to Justice Secretary Dominc Raab which has been seen by the Standard, Ms Waxman said rape and serious sexual offence complainants could be left “waiting years for a day in court” as she pushed for long-term investment and extra ‘Nightingale’ court capacity.
She highlighted that London has been “disproportionately impacted” by the current criminal justice crisis, as around 60,000 cases are in the national backlog while victims, defendants, and witnesses endure lengthy delays.
Ms Waxman, who was appointed by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to represent the interests of victims in 2017, raised the spectre of “long, agonising waits” for those caught up in the criminal justice system, while voicing concerns that significant investment from government in justice is “short-term”.
In last month’s budget, £477 million was pledged to bring the criminal justice backlog down to 53,000 by 2024/25. The government has committed to unlimited judicial sitting days this year to try to tackle the mountain of cases, but efforts have been hampered by a shortage of judges and difficulties finding lawyers to cover hearings.
“London is disproportionately impacted and in desperate need of innovative solutions”, Ms Waxman told the Justice Secretary.
“I have heard from numerous victims who are facing long, agonising waits for trial and are at risk of withdrawing from the justice process as a result.
“The Crown Prosecution Service in London have advised me that judicial capacity is a particular challenge and London’s courts are not operating anywhere near capacity as a result.
“Whilst I welcome the significant financial investment made to the justice system in the recent Budget, I have concerns about the short-term nature of the investment made to courts specifically and how this intersects with other pieces of work being driven forward by the government.”
The government’s end-to-end Rape Review this summer brought out a promise to examine so-called ‘legacy’ cases in the system where a charging decision has not yet been made.
Ms Waxman warned an influx of prosecutions as a result of the review “will cripple both prosecutor and court capacity and I am not aware of any contingency plans in place to avoid these victims waiting years for a day in court”.
She added: “In London we are also facing the possibility of potentially dangerous offenders being released back to the community due to custody time limits running out, while defendants await trial.
“I am sure you share my deep concern at this prospect and agree that urgent action needs to be taken to support the justice system in London.
“This includes more Nightingale court capacity along with a larger facility capable of hearing multi-hander cases and holding defendants in custody.”
The Ministry of Justice says the backlog of cases in the criminal courts is “stabilising” while the numbers are falling in the magistrates courts.
“Throughout the pandemic, courts have prioritised urgent cases where there is a risk to the public, such as sexual violence, and that will continue as the system recovers and more rape prosecutions are brought”, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said.
“We’re investing £1 billion across the criminal justice system to reduce waiting times and increase court capacity, so Londoners can access the swift justice they deserve.”
The department is also due to start publishing criminal justice ‘scorecards’ next month, following the Rape Review and its Beating Crime Action Plan, to judge organisations on areas including timeliness, quality of cases, and victim engagement.