Why BoJo's New Rape Courts are 'Too Little, Too Late' Amid Endemic Underfunding of UK Public Sector
Rape victims will now get support at three Crown Courts under a new pilot scheme kicked off by the Boris Johnson government on June 16 amid unprecedented court backlogs. However, some legal experts have dismissed the effort as "gimmick" as the justice system remains largely underfunded.
The UK government has unrolled a new court scheme as over 5,800 cases involving violent and sexual crimes have been waiting for more than a year to go to trial, compared with just 755 cases two years ago, according
to The Observer. Furthermore, over 1,000 victims have been waiting at least two years.
“Rape and sexual violence are devastating and heinous crimes which can leave an indelible blight people’s lives," says Rupert Matthews, Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. "We are all aware that the decision whether or not to progress a case to court does not happen quickly. Meanwhile, the victim is left wondering what, if anything, is going to happen. And we are not talking about a few weeks, but months or even years. This process must be speeded up. Not at the expense of justice obviously, but not at the expense of the victim either."
The problem came to light last year, with the Johnson cabinet publicly apologizing for thousands of victims of rape and other sexual crimes having been failed on the government watch. The government's Rape Review exposed the downward trends in charging sexual offenders: it fell roughly 60% in 2019-20 compared with 2016-17, even though the number of police reports decreased, sliding from 5,190 to 2,102.
Besides prolonged consideration of their cases, rape victims felt distressed by interference in their privacy, with the police taking away their devices and checking their backgrounds.
"Despite the best efforts of those involved, victims may be further traumatized by the way in which the police are required to investigate not only the immediate events of the incident, but sometimes also to dig deep into victims’ backgrounds and private lives," explains Matthews. "Victims are in danger of losing their privacy if their backgrounds are examined in great detail – even more so if their mobile phones, laptops or other devices are taken away for lengthy examination."
The establishment of three pilot rape courts in Leeds, Newcastle and Snaresbrook (London) has been accompanied by a set of measures, including Operation Soteria, named
by the UK government's official website "a new approach to investigating rape that focuses on the suspects, not the victims."
Furthermore, "all court staff, police and prosecutors working on cases will receive specialist trauma training, and expert at-court support, such as Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, will be available for victims," according to the government. In addition to this, five police forces have completed a pilot scheme where rape victims received replacement phones in cases when their devices need to be examined for more than 24 hours.
However, skeptics say that the proposed pilot courts and new measures are not enough to solve the backlog dilemma as it stems from a chronic underfunding of the UK court system. British legal observers pointed the finger of blame at the incumbent Tory government for the unfolding mess.
"The perennially dishonest [Justice Secretary] Dominic Raab is to blame for rape victims being forced to wait years for a trial. He is the one who, in breach of his oath of office, refuses to provide the courts with the resources they need. Stop the gimmicks. Fund the system," an anonymous legal blogger and writer known by his alias the Secret Barrister tweeted on 16 June.
The comment came in response to Raab's remark that he could not be blamed for rape case backlogs since he had "no control over court listings" and that they have judicial independence. So, it was they who did not prioritize the hearing of rape cases, according to him.
Even though Raab does not have direct control over what cases are listed, he controls budgets for court staff, judges and "court sitting days," argued Twitter observers. According
to the Guardian, a key reason for backlogs is "cuts to the legal aid budget, which has fallen by 43% in real terms since 2004-05." Hundreds of lawyers have quit publicly funded criminal work over inadequate legal aid fees, as the media outlet reported
The problem of the public sector's underfunding is not limited to the court system, as it also involves the police, in particular. While rape cases are piling up in the British courts awaiting trial, the country's law enforcement officers are struggling to solve crimes due to a lack of staff and budget shortages. Last month the Telegraph broke that the police have failed to solve a staggering million burglaries
over the past five years, which is, in other words, more than 500 burglaries a day.
"As we have seen so many times in the past, we have the political rhetoric regarding policing plans with a failure to support those plans as politicians expect the police to carry out those plans with the same resources… This ability to carry out those plans is made worse when the number of police officers is lower than what it was in 2010," Dr. David Lowe, a senior research fellow at Leeds Beckett University’s Law School and a retired police officer told Sputnik earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the backlogs in the crown courts are likely to be exacerbated by criminal barristers' possible strike action later in June, which could include court walkouts. The strike movement is growing across Britain
over the unfolding cost of living crunch, skyrocketing inflation and looming recession under the Johnson government.