'Crisis' in barrister numbers as average wait for rape victims exceeds five years

There is a "crisis" in the number of barristers available for rape and serious sexual offence (RASSO) cases, a new survey has shown.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said 64% of prosecutors and 66% of defence barristers will not reapply to work on RASSO court lists going forward due to the low legal aid fees they are paid and the impact on their wellbeing.

Politics live: Cameron holds 'very important' meeting over detained British man

The figures come as the average wait for a bailed rape trial to conclude from the day of an alleged offence hit around five and a half years - including an average wait of 18 months from someone being charged until the end of the trial.

The CBA said many cases were now waiting longer than 18 months, with members telling them of court dates being set for the end of 2026, despite the charges happening in 2022.

Chair of the organisation, Tana Adkin KC, said barristers were "committed to do everything [they] can to address the backlog and continue providing the highest quality advocacy whilst ensuring the vulnerable, complainants and the accused alike are heard".

But, she said, without "urgent intervention" from the government, the delays will only continue to grow, adding: "Our ability to deliver what government wants, what courts require and the public expects is currently unsustainable."

According to figures from the CBA, there has been a 30% fall in income for barristers over the past 20 years, with some specialist criminal barristers taking home an average of £12,000 a year after expenses in their first three years at the bar.

Following strike action in 2022, the government increased legal aid fees by 15% - but the CBA argued this was the bare minimum recommended in an independent review of charges, and higher pay was needed to keep people in the profession, with swathes of young barristers quitting the courts.

Now, according to the survey, barristers will be walking away from RASSO cases altogether, which represent nearly 9,800 cases in the current backlog of over 66,000 in crown court - up 226% from the historic low of 3,005 at the end of 2018.

A total of six out of 10 of the 780 barristers who responded to the survey cited poor legal aid fees as the reason for refusing to take on RASSO cases in the future, while half pointed to poor well-being as a result of the challenging work.

"Doing nothing to increase RASSO fees is not an option unless we want to accept that rape and serious sexual offence trials will continue to be delayed for years, repeatedly postponed on the day because there is no barrister to prosecute or defend," added Ms Adkin.

"The human cost for victims of these crimes as well as innocent defendants is beyond financial measure."

Sky News has contacted the Ministry of Justice for a response.