Revealed: Record number of rape suspects on Britain’s streets amid ‘absolute scandal’ in court delays

‘Rape in this country has been effectively decriminalised,’ says government’s former victims’ commissioner  (PA)
‘Rape in this country has been effectively decriminalised,’ says government’s former victims’ commissioner (PA)

The number of rape suspects out on bail has hit an all-time high as a huge backlog in the court system causes delays for tens of thousands of victims, figures uncovered by The Independent show.

Latest government statistics highlight a record 1,617 rape cases where the defendant was out on bail while their case was backlogged in the crown courts – up from 318 five years ago – while the number of alleged rape victims waiting more than two years for justice has also soared to new levels.

Meanwhile, in another sign of Britain’s crumbling justice system, police are being forced to release some suspects in serious crimes – in one instance, an alleged rapist – without interview because there are no duty solicitors to represent them.

Sir Bob Neill, senior Tory MP and chair of the Commons justice committee, described the situation as a “perfect storm”, while campaigners have warned that the “broken” system will discourage rape victims from coming forward.

The news comes a day after Britain’s rape tsar quit her role, saying that the justice system was on its knees and that there was a “lack of will to continue to change” to make things better for victims. Ministers have been urged to act after a string of revelations by The Independent, including how criminals could be freed early from jail in an attempt to solve prison overcrowding.

Charlotte Proudman, a barrister specialising in violence against women and girls, told The Independent that suspected rapists being granted bail “shows just how little the criminal justice system cares about rape victims”.

“Rape is one of the most heinous crimes that any woman or man can suffer. Already there is low confidence in reporting rape to the police.

“Would a suspect accused of carrying out terrorism be granted bail? Rape is a form of intimate terrorism, and should be treated in the same way. Giving bail to rapists signals a lack of respect for victims, and that rape itself is not a serious crime,” she said.

While more rape cases are being referred to the crown courts, the number of concluded cases in England and Wales has significantly failed to keep up – creating the growing backlog.

By June this year, the total number of rape cases in the crown courts had hit an all-time high of 2,373. In 1,617 of these cases, the defendant had been bailed – and in 450 of them, for more than a year.

More than 100 such cases had been in the crown courts for more than two years without a conclusion – a figure that is 14 times higher than the average between 2014 and 2019, analysis of Ministry of Justice data by The Independent reveals.

Emily Hunt, the government rape adviser who has now left her role to move back to the US having claimed that she did not feel safe in the UK, told The Independent: “Most rape victims are walking around every day with their rapist free. We know all too well what it feels like to know that you could run into them at any time, and it’s terrifying.”

Former victims’ commissioner Vera Baird says cases should urgently be taken into specialist courts so that the process can be expedited (Getty)
Former victims’ commissioner Vera Baird says cases should urgently be taken into specialist courts so that the process can be expedited (Getty)

Sir Bob hit out at the “unsatisfactory” situation. “Despite increasing the number of sitting court hours, we’re still not getting through the courts backlog.

“It’s particularly serious with rape cases because, by the nature of the offence, it has an impact both upon the complainant and the defendant to have to put their lives on hold while something like that is hanging over them for two years or more. That’s clearly unfair, and it’s clearly wrong.”

He added: “You’ve got almost a perfect storm, haven’t you? Pressures at the beginning with duty solicitors, pressures in the court system, pressures in the prison system.”

Former Labour justice secretary Charlie Falconer described it as an “absolute scandal”. “It’s yet another example of the increasing collapse in the criminal justice system,” he told The Independent. “The agony for the alleged victims having to wait is absolutely terrible. Delays do lead to cases collapsing. The longer the wait, the greater the risk that victims and witnesses lose heart.”

Former victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird warned that the situation will “deter more and more complainants from coming forward”.

“Women who complain of rape to the police have to climb a near-vertical wall in this government’s criminal justice system, even to get their assailant charged,” she said.

“Rape defendants are rarely in custody, and other kinds of case with defendants on remand take priority, pushing this most traumatised and haunted group of complainants further and further back in the crown court queue. This will get worse.”

Dame Vera said these cases should urgently be taken into specialist courts, so that the process can be expedited. “That can provide fairer justice for [complainants] and defendants alike,” she said.

Criminal Bar Association chair Tana Adkin KC explained that custody time limits mean that remand cases “tend to take priority” over bail cases, which “inevitably means any outstanding sexual offence cases involving defendants on bail are disproportionately impacted”.

Nevertheless, the remand prison population is also at a record high, with The Independent reporting last month that some 150 prisoners had been waiting for more than five years for trial.

Referring to the instances in which suspects are being released from police stations without interview, the Law Society warned that they were not isolated cases.

Richard Atkinson, the society’s deputy president, said: “This is a worsening position. This isn’t a one-off, and this is something that’s starting to happen – but it’s going to get worse unless [ministers] address the issue of the number of personnel in the criminal justice system.”

 (Data: Ministry of Justice)
(Data: Ministry of Justice)

And, accusing the government of knowing “the cost of everything and the value of nothing”, Labour MP Stella Creasy said: “They have 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.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Decisions on bail applications are made by independent judges who ensure the public are protected.

“Our reforms to criminal legal aid will increase investment in the profession by £85m a year, and by next year, solicitors will see a 30 per cent increase for their work in police stations and a 20 per cent increase for their work in the magistrates’ courts.”

In 2021, a government-commissioned review by Sir Christopher Bellamy urged ministers to increase legal aid funding “as soon as possible” by a minimum of £135m as “the first step in nursing the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.