Record backlog of sex offence cases in Preston
Victims in limbo amid delays over trials at Preston Crown Court
Preston Crown Court is facing its biggest backlog of cases for sex offences, figures reveal, as the wait for justice for hundreds of victims continues.
Charities fear delays at courts across England and Wales could stop people reporting crime in future, while legal bodies fear they could even impact the outcome of a trial.
Ministry of Justice data shows there were 251 outstanding cases for alleged sex offences at Preston Crown Court at the end of March.
That was more than double the the 110 at the same time last year, and the highest number since comparable records were first published seven years ago.
The cases were among 1,540 outstanding cases at Preston Crown Court at the end of March, including 348 relating to alleged violent attacks.
Across England and Wales, 59,500 cases were waiting to be dealt with by crown courts at the end of March, an increase of 45 per cent on the previous year.
Of those, 6,300 (11 per cent) involved allegations of sexual offences.
The Ministry of Justice said the long delays were brought on by the impact of Covid-19 which led to a limited operation at criminal courts, particularly last year.
However, the Law Society of England and Wales, which represents solicitors, said the pandemic has only compounded decades of underfunding and court closures.
President Stephanie Boyce said the case delays made a “courts crisis” even worse and had the potential to impact not just victims’ lives, but also the outcomes of cases.
She added: “Let’s not forget victims, waiting years for justice, and sometimes giving up on the system, which is a heavy blow for justice in this country.
“Memories fade, meaning witnesses cannot give such strong evidence, which may make the difference between conviction and acquittal.”
Charity Victim Support said the longer waits had a damaging impact on victims, particularly those suffering trauma from serious offences.
Rachel Almeida, assistant director, said: “Long delays undermine confidence in the criminal justice system and can deter victims and survivors from engaging in future.
“All possible steps must be taken to address the court backlog and reduce these long waits for trial.”
Coronavirus restrictions meant trials could not be held in some court buildings, leading to the opening of 60 Nightingale courtrooms across England and Wales, some based in stadiums, town halls and theatres.
Hearings were also carried out through remote technology, with more than half done in this way between May and December last year.
At Preston Crown Court, 1,907 cases were concluded between April last year and March this year, a fall from 2,572 the year before.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said since April this year, the backlog of outstanding cases at crown courts had started to fall, although the latest figures were unavailable at individual court level.
They said: “Dedicated staff and professionals kept justice moving during the pandemic and thanks to their efforts we are seeing positive results – outstanding cases in the crown court are beginning to drop.
“Major challenges remain which is why we are investing hundreds of millions to further increase capacity, deliver swifter justice and support victims.”