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Watchdog warns of 'loss of confidence' in UK's criminal justice system

The Royal Courts of Justice are seen in London Britain May 19, 2016. (Reuters photo)

A British watchdog has warned of “a loss of confidence” in the country’s criminal justice system as rapists and other serious criminals are walking free because victims are dropping court cases due to delays.

Victims are being “re-victimised” because of long waits for hearings, Dame Vera Baird, the victims' commissioner for England and Wales, told MPs on Tuesday while giving evidence to parliament’s justice committee.

“We will lose some [from the prosecution process] because they will not want to go through the coming and going from court or simply can’t take a trial date which may be, in some areas, as late as 2022,” Dame Vera said.

“The consequences are a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system. People who are guilty are not being convicted and people are not getting justice.”

She previously said victims had for too long been treated like bystanders, noting mounting evidence of a loss of confidence in criminal justice was driven by people's experiences.

"There is a collapse in confidence and it is not just about Covid [backlogs in courts], and it's not just about delay," Dame Vera told the BBC. "It is very largely to do with how people are treated."

According to the most recent statistics released by HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), there were more than 455,000 outstanding criminal cases in England and Wales by December 2020, up from less than 350,000 in the same month a year before.

The backlog in magistrates’ courts reached a peak of 447,000 in July, before decreasing to 400,000, but the number in crown courts has continued to go up.

The number of outstanding crown court cases in December stood at 55,189, a rise of 47 percent in a year. In the same period, the average time between a charge and a disposal in the magistrates’ court rose from eight to 14 weeks.

Dame Vera said that delays also meant victims received less support from increasingly stretched independent sexual violence and domestic abuse advisers, Victim Support as well as police witness care units.

“The most serious victims of crime are the main victims of the very considerable delays in the criminal justice system now,” she told MPs.

“Particularly someone who has had a traumatic experience like a serious assault or sexual abuse, they live with it when they know they’ve got to go through it all again to testify in court. They can’t leave that behind and move on with their lives. They are being re-victimised by extended delays.”

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