Labour pledges 80 new rape courts in bid to tackle backlog crisis

Labour will establish 80 new rape courts across and England and Wales to fast-track cases as part of wide-ranging plans to tackle violence against women and girls that will be announced in the party’s general election manifesto this week.

The specialist courts will be set up in unused rooms and spare capacity within every existing crown court, in an effort to end a growing backlog that causes 60% of rape victims to drop out before their cases even begin.

Between the end of 2019 and the end of 2023, Labour says, there was a 346% increase in the number of adult rape cases in the crown court backlog, leading to claims that rape was effectively being “decriminalised”.

Just 2.6% of rape cases result in a charge. Labour leader Keir Starmer has said he will halve violence against women and girls, and bring in tougher sentences for rapists, under his “missions” for government.

The party will also make a manifesto pledge to introduce specialist rape units in every police force, where staff trained to deal with domestic abuse will work with victims. Rape victims and others suffering domestic abuse will also be listed as “vulnerable”, meaning their cases will be pushed through faster.

Starmer will unveil the Labour manifesto on Thursday as the election campaign enters a new phase, based more on actual policy commitments. Party sources said it would be “ambitious, with a clear plan to change the country for the better”.

Rishi Sunak – under intense pressure to revive Tory morale and turn the polls after another disastrous few days – will also reveal the Conservative manifesto this week. It will prioritise tax cuts, including a promise to abolish stamp duty permanently for first-time buyers on the first £425,000 of a property’s value.

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows Labour’s lead at 18 points, down two from a week ago. Labour is on 42% (-3), the Tories 24% (-1), Reform on 12 % (+1) following the decision by Nigel Farage to stand and lead the party, the Liberal Democrats 10% (+2) and the Greens 7% (+1). Most of the fieldwork was conducted before news broke late on Thursday that Sunak had left D-day commemorations in France early – a blunder for which he had a apologise amid fury from his MPs and party activists.

Opinium found that Labour now has commanding leads on all main policy areas, including those where it has not traditionally been strong, such as crime and the economy. When voters were asked who would run the economy better Labour, has a 10-point lead and on crime it is 12 points ahead.

On Saturday, after two of his cabinet ministers, Penny Mordaunt and Mark Harper, had criticised the prime minister for leaving the D-day events before they ended, an apparently rattled Sunak cancelled plans to take questions from the media during a visit to Bishop Auckland, in County Durham.

Speaking about her party’s plans to halve violence against women and children and tackle the courts backlog, shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said: “It is a stain on this government’s record that the victims of rape are waiting so long to see justice done. Thanks to 14 years of Tory chaos, we are seeing unacceptable delays in the courts and 60% of rape victims are dropping out. For too many, justice delayed has become justice denied.

“A Labour government will work tirelessly to change this. We will halve violence against women and girls within a decade. Under our plans, we will provide free legal advocates for rape victims to ensure that victims’ rights are respected. And we will introduce specialist rape courts and fast-track rape cases to ensure justice is swiftly and surely done.”

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Last month, the National Audit Office said it no longer believed that the Ministry of Justice’s ambition to reduce the overall backlog of cases to 53,000 by March 2025 was achievable. Of the 67,573 cases awaiting trial, almost a fifth (18%) are sexual offences.

The NAO says this is partly because there has been a large increase in the number of rape cases – the number of these going to trial increased from 624 (1.6% of all cases) in 2019 to 2,786 (4.1% of all cases) in 2023. Rape cases are more complex, with a lower proportion of defendants pleading guilty, so take longer on average to hear.

Charities such as Rape Crisis say there is also a shortage of solicitors, barristers and judges, a lack of contingency plans after Covid-19 struck, and funding cuts to the courts.

Mahmood also pledged that Labour would address overcrowding in prisons. “The crisis in our prisons is a powder keg waiting to explode. We will build the prison places [the Tories] promised but never delivered and we will drive down reoffending. I am determined to fix the prisons crisis for the long term, not just push back disaster by another day, week or month.”

Labour sources said its plans were fully costed and details of how they would be paid for would accompany the manifesto.


Updated: Juni 8, 2024 — 6:03 pm

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