Five ways the courts are letting down survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse

There has been a surge in reports of domestic abuse during the pandemic and at the same time the justice system is struggling, ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reports

The UK Criminal Justice system is facing unprecedented backlogs and it's affecting survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault as they are forced to wait over a year for their day in court.

Even before the pandemic, there were long waits for justice, but first lockdown saw jury trials, which hear the most serious offences, suspended.

Here are five ways the criminal justice system is letting down the survivors of domestic abuse.

Mounting delays

Research from the Institute of Government, shared exclusively with ITV News, estimates that the backlog in crown court jury trials has spiked by an astounding 89% since the pandemic began.

Some domestic abuse cases are heard in magistrates courts, but when rape and assault are involved they need to be trialled by jury.

Credit: UTV

The latest figures from the Home Office show there are over 57,000 cases of all kinds waiting to be heard across courts in England and Wales.

Victim Support, a charity helping survivors of Domestic Abuse, has told ITV News some victims have learnt their cases won’t be heard until 2023. And it claims many cases are still being cancelled or rescheduled at the last minute, due to courtrooms being overbooked. 

A surge in withdrawals

Domestic Abuse charities and the Victims’ Commissioner believe court delays are contributing to the huge rise in women withdrawing their cases.

The Home Office’s own Crime Outcomes figures show that in the year ending September 2020, 42% of rape complainants dropped prosecutions. In the past five years that rate has doubled.

It's an equally depressing picture for cases of violence against the person, which includes domestic abuse.

Last year 44%, or almost half, withdrew their cases compared to 25% of victims of all types of crime. 

There are other factors involved and not all of those accused would have been found guilty.

But the high rate of attrition means a significant number of perpetrators are getting away with their crimes.

'He made my life a living hell...I got to the point where I just wanted to die': Domestic abuse survivor 'Victoria' described the abuse she faced

One survivor' “Victoria”' whose real identity we are concealing, told ITV News she faces a 14 month wait to give evidence against her abuser in court.

It's a prospect she says stops her sleeping at night and she regularly considers dropping the case.

“I just want to forget it all. I don’t want to think about it ever again” she told me, her voice shaking.

But she fears he will abuse someone else if the case is dropped.

“It's just a matter of time... because he’s always been the same and he won’t change.”

A missed opportunity

One way to stop the agonising wait for victims who dread reliving their ordeals in court is to use more video recordings of evidence.

Under Section 28, which was first established back in 1999, the evidence of “vulnerable victims”, such as children, can already be recorded as soon as perpetrators are charged.

A pilot scheme has been running in three areas of the country to let rape survivors, as “intimidated victims” do the same.

Under the supervision of a judge, evidence is recorded and the victim cross-examined by lawyers.

However long a case then takes to come to trial, the victim’s part in it is finished with the recording used in court. 

Mum of two Gemma Robinson (left) took her own life while waiting to face her abuser in court. Credit: ITV News

The new Domestic Abuse Act, which got royal assent last month, would put domestic abuse survivors into the same category.

But there is not yet a date for the Bill to be “commenced” or put into action.

And despite some reports that the Justice Secretary is considering extending the use of video evidence, as part of the government’s long overdue “End to End Rape Review”, the Ministry of Justice won’t confirm those plans, let alone offer a timetable for delivery. 

A funding shortfall

The crisis in our courts isn’t new' with the backlog in cases building long before Covid. 

Unlike the NHS pre-pandemic, the waits weren’t due to a service running red hot with no spare capacity.

The courts were constrained by a funding cap the government imposed, meaning that even if there were spare courtrooms or judges, cases could only be heard on a set number of days to keep costs down.

Last month, in response to mounting delays, the government lifted that cap.

It means the Lord Chief Justice can ask for unlimited funding to open up courtrooms in England or Wales if there are judges available. 

But the Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird believes that in the wake of the past 12 months, much more is needed.

She told ITV News: “I welcome the government decision to take the cap off sitting days. But that funding isn’t going far enough because there has been an epidemic within the pandemic of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

"So the limited resources, always on a shoestring, are really stretched to breaking point.”

Support services overwhelmed

Gemma Robinson, a young mum of two who loved to party, was brutally assaulted in her own home by an ex-partner last year.

Waiting to face him in court was something she described to her sister Kirsty as “torture”.

Just days before she was due to give evidence against him, Gemma took her own life.

Kirsty Robinson on the 'torture' her sister faced everyday having to wait for the court case of her ex-partner to begin

Kirsty Robinson told ITV News the charity that had been supporting her sister had to withdraw its help due to lack of money.

“They ran out of funds - that’s what they said to her and she was devastated. She was just petrified of seeing him (at court)."

But the mounting delays mean more and more victims are stuck in limbo, needing help for longer and placing more pressure on already overstretched services.

Victim Support told ITV News that since the first lockdown began, it has received 20,000 more referrals related to domestic abuse than its average before the pandemic.

Its advisors are also having to look after victims for longer, with “most cases taking over eight months to get to court and cases at the beginning of 2021 now being given a date of June 2022 for the Crown Court”.

What the government say 

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told us: "Victims deserve to have their cases investigated thoroughly and pursued as quickly as possible through the courts, while receiving the best support available. 

"That’s why we are recruiting 20,000 more police officers and investing £450m to deliver speedier justice.

"This is already having an impact, with outstanding Magistrates’ cases falling by around 80,000 since last summer and Crown Courts now dealing with cases at pre-Covid levels."

In response, Labour's Shadow Solicitor General Ellie Reeves MP said: "This Tory government is letting down victims of rape and sexual violence on every front. 

"Rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record, victims are being left years for their date in court and many survivors feel the system is working against them, not for them, and that is completely the wrong way round. 

"The government has no plan to support victims or address the failings on its watch.

"Labour’s Survivors' Support Plan and Ending Violence Against Women and Girls Green Paper would help secure and rebuild our criminal justice system so that it works for everyone."

If any of these issues have affected you, here's how you can get help and advice:

  • Call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free and confidential advice, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.

  • Women's Aid has a range of direct services for survivors, including a live chat service and an online Survivors’ Forum.

  • The Men’s Advice Line is a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and those supporting them. Contact on: 0808 801 0327.

  • Galop runs the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse specialist helpline. Contact: 0800 999 5428. Email:

  • Chayn provides online help and resources in a number of languages about identifying manipulative situations and how friends can support those being abused.