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Criminal justice crisis deepens as number of rape suspects on streets hits new high

The number of rape trials in the backlog has soared by 356 per cent in just four years  (PA)
The number of rape trials in the backlog has soared by 356 per cent in just four years (PA)

The crisis in the justice system has been further laid bare by new official figures showing the backlog of criminal trials hitting a new record high – leaving more suspected rapists out on bail than ever before.

A record 66,547 cases were outstanding in the crown courts as of 30 October, more than double the number just four years ago, pushing Rishi Sunak’s government’s March 2025 deadline of cutting the backlog to 53,000 cases yet further out of reach.

Some 5,776 trials had been stuck in the backlog for more than two years, which analysis by The Independent found was 10 times higher than the average in the six years prior to 2020, when the pandemic disrupted court sittings.

Of those cases backlogged for two years, an all-time high of 1,063 involved suspects trapped behind bars while awaiting trial – a staggering rise from just 70 less than four years ago, in a grim phenomenon exacerbating dire prison overcrowding, which is leaving many inmates locked in cells for 23 hours a day.

The rape case backlog has soared by 356 per cent over the same period to a record 2,591 outstanding cases – of which 1,757 involved bailed suspects. This was higher still than last quarter’s record high of 1,628, as highlighted by The Independent.

Labour MP Stella Creasy told this outlet in October that ministers had “been so obsessed with blaming lawyers and slashing funding, rather than securing justice and helping prevent crime, that they’ve ended up creating a system which now means victims have to live in fear of bumping into their rapist at their local shops for years on end”.

The latest figures also showed the number of trials delayed because no judge was available to oversee them hit a fresh record, with 53 derailed in the last three months alone, including seven involving rape and 13 for violence.

Peter Collier KC – who sat as a judge at Leeds Crown Court for 11 years until 2018 – previously warned that adjourning rape trials on the day would “never” have happened during his tenure, “other than because some key witness had died, or something absolutely dramatic”.

The Independent has previously highlighted the record number of trials impacted by judge shortages (.)
The Independent has previously highlighted the record number of trials impacted by judge shortages (.)

“I can remember, once, a rape case got adjourned, and there were questions asked at the highest level – the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] were absolutely spitting tacks. But it happens now all the time. Words fail me, really, because it was so predictable,” he said, writing in The Independent.

Meanwhile, a record 152 trials failed to go ahead at the last minute in the first nine months of this year due to a failure to bring a defendant from prison, often leaving victims, lawyers, judges and witnesses waiting needlessly in court. This was already more than double the average in the six years to 2020.

Warning that the criminal justice system “is withering at the root due to decades of underinvestment and the government’s failure to tackle the crisis”, the Law Society said: “Delays in the courts are being compounded by a chronic shortage of lawyers and judges, overrun prisons and courts in disrepair.”

Calling the increase in people held on remand for over two years “extremely concerning”, Law Society president Nick Emmerson warned that criminal defence solicitors are “crucial to help tackle the huge backlogs in our courts, but they are becoming more and more scarce as the work is not financially viable”.

“The fundamental right to access to justice is at stake without urgent investment into criminal justice,” he said.

A record number of trials have been adjourned at the last minute this year because of a failure to bring the suspect from prison to court
A record number of trials have been adjourned at the last minute this year because of a failure to bring the suspect from prison to court

Tana Adkin KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the delays were “symptomatic of an underfunded criminal justice system with poor regard for the people needed to bring cases to a just conclusion”.

“Cases are being listed and not called on due to lack of court time, lack of a judge or lack of a barrister to prosecute or defend,” Ms Adkin warned.

“Witnesses, complainants and jurors are kept waiting for the prison bus that never comes or have to travel to another court miles away where there are no refreshments or water starts to come in through the roof.

“The conviction rate for rape offences, once charged, remains high when compared to other offences and has done so for more than a decade. Complainants in rape and sexual offence cases need to know that they will receive sensitive and fair treatment in our courts and that their cases will not be delayed for years.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are doing more than ever before to ensure victims see justice done – prosecuting more adult rape cases than in 2010, while police referrals, charges and cases reaching court are all on the up.

“We are also letting courts run at full throttle – lifting the cap on the number of days they can sit for a third year, more judges and investing more in our courts This includes in magistrates’ courts where more than 90 per cent of criminal cases are dealt with.”