Unmesh Desai: Delayed justice for London’s rape and sexual assault victims must end

Unmesh Desai: Delayed justice for London’s rape and sexual assault victims must end

The pandemic has posed huge obstructions to justice for victims of sexual assault and rape, with some in London having to wait up to four years for a court date. This is a shameful state of affairs, which is cruelly drawing out the trauma for victims of some of the most horrendous crimes.

The ordeal that victims have to go through is unimaginable and we know from wide research that these inordinate delays are leading to mental and physical health problems, such as anxiety, night terrors, depression and suicidal thoughts.

At a recent meeting of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee, we heard from Deputy Met Commissioner Sir Stephen House that witness care units across the capital have seen their workloads increase by 90% since the pandemic first hit. This alarming figure means the units are unable to maintain their normal standard of care for victims, and this will have the deeply regrettable knock-on effect of leading to an increase the number of case withdrawals.

The bottom line is that victims are being comprehensively failed, and many would say this is an understatement. We must remember that even prior to the pandemic, there was already a crisis in our criminal justice system facing thousands of victims of rape and sexual offences in London. Whilst the number of rape and sexual offences in the capital rose by a fifth over the past five years, the prosecution rate during the same period has almost halved.

Changes in the use of digital evidence by the police and in the internal policies of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are leading to fewer cases being brought to court. Thankfully, there is now work underway to resolve both of these issues, including a review spearheaded by City Hall’s Victims’ Commissioner into the police’s use of the victims’ mobile phone data as evidence.

Underlying all of this, however, is the legacy of government-imposed austerity. There have been over £850 million of cuts to the Met’s budget since 2010, whilst the CPS has seen its resources slashed by a quarter. The result of this combination of issues has been that many cases in recent years have never reached a courtroom, with victims left feeling helpless and badly let down by a system that has failed to bring perpetrators to justice.

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the already severe strain on the criminal courts, putting another obstacle in the way of victims of rape and sexual assault. In March last year, more than half of courts closed as a result of lockdown measures, with only urgent cases being dealt with. When court proceedings eventually started to resume, social distancing measures resulted in reduced capacity. This led to the number of cases waiting to be heard at Crown Courts rising by 44% during the last quarter in comparison with the same period last year and the number of victims waiting for trials in London standing at 227,000 at the end of 2020.

The government has sought to resolve the issue of the backlog by opening a number of “Nightingale” courts across London in an attempt to expedite cases through the system. But the Mayor and others – including senior Met officers – have pointed out that these new courts are not yet having a significant impact. The issue has been that the new facilities are only able to deal with simple cases due to their not having facilities such as holding cells that are available in ordinary courts.

I support the Mayor’s calls for a further facility to be brought forward in London with such provisions in place in order to reduce the number of cases in the system. There must also be assurances provided by the Court and Tribunals Service that the emotional and physical wellbeing of victims of rape and sexual assault is taken into account before any trial is cancelled or adjourned.

We know what the long-standing problems are. Now, we must strive to fix them as quickly as possible, so we can firmly focus upon encouraging victims of rape and sexual assault to take the very difficult step of coming forward to the police.

Justice delayed is justice lost and victims have been let down for too long. We must continue to ensure their voices do not go unheard amid the wider crisis of the pandemic and call for the government to swiftly resolve the delays within our court system.

Unmesh Desai is the London Assembly Member for City & East constituency and chair of the Assembly’s police and crime committee. Follow him on Twitter.

OnLondon.co.uk has been providing in-depth coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture since February 2017It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources, plus special offers and free access to events. Click here to donate directly or contact davehillonlondon@gmail.com for bank account details. Thank you.

Categories: Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.