Children are facing increasingly long and distressing court delays as child sexual abuse prosecutions and convictions are falling, the NSPCC has warned.
A Freedom of Information request by the charity found that prosecutions for child sexual abuse (CSA) in England and Wales have more than halved since 2016-17 while convictions have fallen by 45% over the same timeframe.
The NSPCC is calling on Dominic Raab, Lord Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister, to review the fall in prosecutions and convictions for CSA cases in England and Wales and set out an action plan for reversing the decline.
Anna Edmundson, NSPCC Head of Policy and Public Affairs, said: “Young victims of abuse have often lived through unimaginable trauma but many want to share their evidence with a court and prevent perpetrators from causing further harm.
“These figures show young witnesses are being denied this opportunity and those who do go to court experience long delays and inadequate support which risks retraumatising them further.
“This is utterly unacceptable. We call on Dominic Raab to review and reverse the decline in prosecutions and convictions, use the Victims’ Law to tackle the delays affecting child sexual abuse cases going through court and provide much better support for young witnesses and victims,” she added.
The FOI revealed that:
The figures emerge after a 25% reduction in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget between 2010/11 and 2019/2020. In England and Wales, there have been court closures, a drop in court staff, the ending of almost all specialist young witness schemes, a shortage of registered intermediaries and a 57% increase in police reports of CSA in 5 years.
The NSPCC highlights that in 2021 the National Audit Office warned the backlog of cases in criminal courts severely affects victims, witnesses and defendants and is likely to be a common issue for several years.
Furthermore, the children’s charity outlines that the distress caused to children facing lengthy court cases results in sleeping and eating problems, depression, panic attacks and self-harm due to a lack of support in the criminal justice system.
One young person said: “Today I had to appear in court to give evidence after I was sexually assaulted last year. If I’m honest, I didn’t think my case would even go to court, and I’m finding the whole process overwhelming. I was on a video link, so the person who assaulted me couldn’t see me. My mum was there with me along with a victim support officer – but I still felt so nervous the whole time. I’d prepared a statement in advance but then I was asked a load of follow-up questions. I struggled to give detailed answers as it happened so long ago – plus I’ve blocked most of it from my mind anyway. In the end, the session had to finish early because I was struggling to speak. They’ve said I have to go back tomorrow, but I really don’t want to do it.”
The NSPCC’s analysis underlines the impact that delays have on young people:
• Going to court can be extremely daunting, with uneven access to pre-trial support and many experiencing long waits for their trial to start.
• Some struggled to relive their abuse in court and were forced to face their abuser, while others went through cross-examinations which increased their feelings of blame or guilt.
While a review of adult rape cases resulted in the government committing to prosecution and conviction increases, there has been no review or commitment to tackle the significant fall in CSA cases.
As a result, the charity is urging a government review and are calling on Dominic Raab, Lord Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister, to:
• Review the fall in prosecutions and convictions for CSA cases in England and Wales and set out an action plan for reversing the decline.
• Guarantee a proportion of the £477 million received by the MoJ in the Spending Review will be used to tackle the delays and backlog in CSA cases in criminal courts.
• Ensure that young people benefit from the £185 million allocated to the MoJ to increase the number of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors.
• Ensure a significant number of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors are trained to work with children and young people.
• Increase the number of registered intermediaries available to support young people give evidence in court.
• Invest in Child Houses to deliver some of the promises made by the government a year ago as part of its Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy.
There should also be consistent support for young witnesses, including tailored, child-centred support from Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, special measures such as pre-recorded evidence and specialist communication support from registered intermediaries to help children give their best evidence in court.
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