The shocking stats that reveal it’s never been a better time to be a criminal

·Data and Politics News Editor, Yahoo News UK
·6-min read
Police units are seen outside the ground as fans begin to arrive before the Emirates FA Cup semi final match at Wembley Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday April 16, 2022.
The proportion of crimes reported to police that result in a charge has tumbled to a record low. (PA Images)

Record numbers of offences are going unsolved alongside vast court backlogs that are crippling a woefully underfunded and understaffed justice system.

According to an analysis of the Home Office’s most recent crime data by Yahoo News UK, the proportion of offences resulting in a charge plummeted to a record low of 5.8% in the year to December 2021, equivalent to just one in 17 crimes.

It represents a fall from 7% in the year to March 2020, and is less than half the rate recorded five years ago, when 13.1% of crimes saw a person charged.

In fact, the system is so stretched that, according to one criminal barrister, if a victim was raped today, it would likely take five years for the case to go to court.

The figures were branded "truly shameful" by Labour, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accusing the government of being "weak on crime and its causes".

One exasperated defence barrister summed up the situation by telling Yahoo that it has never been a better time to be a criminal.

The scale of the problem can be seen across a range of crimes.

The proportion of crime resulting in a charge has dropped to the lowest levels recorded (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/Home Office)
The proportion of crime resulting in a charge has dropped to the lowest levels recorded (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/Home Office)

Over five years, the proportion of weapons offences resulting in a charge dropped from 54% to 29.6%.

For cases of rape - which are at the highest levels ever record - just 1.3% recorded incidents resulted in a charge in 2021, down from 7% in 2016.

Read more: 2 in 5 sexual offence cases on public transport dropped after no suspect identified

Stephen Davies, criminal defence solicitor at Tuckers Law, told Yahoo News UK that the criminal justice system has been "starved in every single way", leaving the system "gridlocked".

Court backlogs, already rising before COVID hit, soared in lockdown as jury trials were suspended, leaving victims stuck in a queue to have their cases heard.

Tens of thousands of criminal cases are waiting to be heard in the crown court (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/MoJ)
Tens of thousands of criminal cases are waiting to be heard in the Crown court. (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/MoJ)
Hundreds of thousands of cases are waiting to be heard by magistrates courts (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/MoJ)
Hundreds of thousands of cases are waiting to be heard by magistrates' courts. (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/MoJ)

At the end of 2021, there were 58,818 cases waiting to be heard in the crown court, down from a peak of 60,893, but 20,000 higher than two years previously.

At the same time, some 359,261 cases were waiting to be heard at magistrates courts.

"We simply cannot prosecute serious cases and we cannot deal with the volume," said Davies.

"Why? Because we have starved the system. We do not have the personnel the workforce to deal with it. The government must reconcile with that, otherwise they will not deal with the current issue.

"And the current issue right now is the entire criminal justice system is gridlocked."

The consequences to Davies are clear.

"There couldn't be a better time to be a criminal," he said. "Or worse to be a victim."

The queue for justice

The backlog has resulted in extensive delays before cases make it to the Crown court, which deals with the most serious offences.

In the year to March 2020, the number of cases waiting more than a year increased by more than 340%.

A report by MPs on the public accounts committee in March 2022 found that victims of rape and sexual assault were some of the worst affected.

People take part in a Million Women Rise march outside Charing Cross Police Station in central London, ahead of International Women's Day. The march is in protest against men's violence against women, police violence, racism and misogyny. Picture date: Saturday March 5, 2022.
People take part in a protest against men's violence against women, police violence, racism and misogyny. Home Office stats show that just 1.3% of reported rapes result in a charge. (PA Images)

The number of these cases waiting longer than a year to get to court has increased by more than 400% since the start of the COVID pandemic.

This, MPs warned, risks victims being subjected to further trauma and of withdrawing from the process entirely.

"As waiting times increase, so does the risk the victim withdraws from the process and the case collapses," the paper said.

Davies warns that if a victim were to be raped today, it would likely take five years before their case got to court.

Burnt out barristers

A further issue, raised by the Bar Council, is the number of barristers turning their backs on criminal law due to poor working conditions.

Data from the organisation reveals the number of barristers practising full-time in publicly funded criminal law has declined by more than 10% in 2020-21, dropping from 2,670 to 2,400.

Practicing criminal barristers warn there are simply not enough of them to get through the caseload.

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London, during a nationwide strike against Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220 million from the legal aid budget by 2018/19.
Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London, protest in 2014 against cuts to fees as part of a plan to slash £220m from the legal aid budget. (PA Images)

"The Bar Council has consistently said that both solicitors and barristers need an urgent injection of money immediately," said Mark Fenhalls QC, chair of the Bar Council.

"This is essential funding to keep the criminal justice system afloat, and so that victims, complainants, witnesses and defendants do not need to wait years for trials to take place.

“Many barristers are burnt out and need a break from the relentless amount of work they are doing.

"Criminal legal work is incredibly challenging. The new data published today suggests that barristers will look for alternatives to criminal work whenever they can.”

A government spokesman told Yahoo News UK: “We are increasing investment in criminal legal aid by £135m a year — the biggest increase in a decade – to ensure professionals are better paid for the work they carry out and help free up capacity in courts.

“The number of outstanding cases in the courts is falling and we are spending nearly half a billion pounds, keeping open 30 extra courtrooms and increasing magistrates’ powers to speed up justice for victims.”

Overwhelmed police officers

The problems begin long before cases reach court, according to the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, who warn that police are facing new paperwork burdens coupled with unprecedented demands on their time.

National Detectives’ Forum Chair Glyn Pattinson told Yahoo News UK: "The Home Office [figures] reveals two crucial challenges added to policing duties during the period.

"First, are the changes brought by Crown Prosecution Service requiring police to submit a full case file, with any necessary redactions, before they decide if there is sufficient evidence to charge and take the case forward.

"This has drastically reduced the overall time detectives have available to actively investigate new cases. In some instances, it has also resulted in victims withdrawing from investigations because of delays caused by the new guidance.

"Second, is the unprecedented demand on the police during the COVID pandemic in respect of enforcing lockdown and other measures to ensure communities remained safe.

"Both these challenges have not only affected the outcome of reported cases but also increased the workloads of all rank and file police officers."

A government spokesperson said: “By working with partners across the Criminal Justice System and investing in policing capabilities, we are seeking to increase the number of cases being investigated, prosecuted and convicted.

“The upcoming Victims Bill will improve the quality and awareness of support available to victims, ensuring they remain engaged in the criminal justice system, and perpetrators are brought to justice.”

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