Rape and sexual assault survivors have told how they were left suicidal by court delays as Scotland’s justice system struggles to cope with the Covid backlog – a year after restrictions ended.
Some survivors said they wanted to end their own life as they waited years for justice and often their attackers walked free.
The Sunday Post spoke to women re-traumatised by the delays as the Law Society of Scotland warned waiting times and legal aid were still an issue.
Justice officials admitted it could take years for High Court and sheriff solemn cases, heard by a sheriff and a jury, involving the most serious crimes, to return to normal.
One survivor said: “My case took over three years to go through court and I began feeling so small, I lost the ability to smile, eat and breathe.
“At night I was engulfed by nightmares. I had no safe space. I was tormented, the space in my head filled with memories and deep sorrow, I felt like I was defined by the rape.”
The latest figures from Scottish courts show the backlog for summary cases is not expected to be cleared until March next year.
Data from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service for February showed every level of the court system was still clogged. The average time between pleading diet and evidence-led trial is 53 weeks for High Court cases, compared to the pre-Covid level of 22 weeks.
Meanwhile, the average time between pleading diet and trial is 43 weeks for sheriff solemn cases, compared to 11 weeks before the pandemic.
In sheriff summary cases – where the sheriff sits alone – the average time between pleading diet and evidence-led trial is 44 weeks compared to 23 weeks before Covid.
In Justice of the Peace courts, the average time is 46 weeks compared to the pre-Covid level of 22 weeks.
Sheila Webster, vice-president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Scotland’s new first minister and cabinet ministers will have to ensure that some of the short-term and longer-term issues in the justice sector are addressed and that they support and promote a thriving legal sector in Scotland.
“There continue to be issues affecting the criminal justice system in the wake of the pandemic, and addressing the backlog of cases and number of people held in remand must remain a priority.
“We are expecting a Bill on criminal justice reforms. It will be vital that we get this right and that any proposals for change are proportionate and implemented with great care to maintain a fair and just criminal justice system for all those involved.
“It’s also vital that work continues to resolve the ongoing legal aid crisis. Legal aid means that even the most vulnerable people in our society can access the legal advice that they need to uphold their rights and resolve legal problems, whether that relates to employment issues, family or relationship breakdown or criminal matters.
“The £11m funding allocated to legal aid by the Scottish Government this year is a step in the right direction to help alleviate some of the deep-rooted issues caused by years of underfunding.
“However, more needs to be done to ensure the long-term viability of legal aid and that people can access the legal advice they need, irrespective of their financial circumstances.
“The most recent Programme for Government included plans to reform legal services regulation.
“This is something we have pressed for over many years and we are keen to see new legislation that will improve consumer protections for those using legal services, and which will also allow Scotland’s legal sector to continue to grow and compete in today’s highly competitive global legal market.”
As far back as December 2021, the Lord Advocate warned of an alarming backlog in cases involving rape and male violence against women. At the time, Dorothy Bain told MSPs “radical action” was needed with 837 cases awaiting trial before a High Court jury – up 57% since the start of the pandemic.
Sandy Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, said survivors of sexual violence and abuse in Scotland were now facing totally unacceptable delays for their case to get to trial.
She said: “Behind these worrying statistics of delays are survivors who are living for months or even years with this hanging over them. The impact this can have on a survivor’s wellbeing really can’t be overstated. Taking a rape complaint to court can be a very difficult process for a survivor.
“These delays make that experience all the more distressing. We need to see significant reform at every stage of the criminal justice system to ensure that survivors are treated with respect, dignity and fairness.
“We very much hope the Scottish Government’s upcoming Criminal Justice Reform Bill will take real action to make engaging with the justice system easier and more just for every survivor who chooses to report.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “These distressing stories reflect the real-world impact that long waits for court cases can have.
“Court backlogs were already too long pre-pandemic but now extensive waits seem to be the new normal. Far too often justice delayed is justice denied. A new justice secretary offers a chance for a reset. We need to see fresh resources for our beleaguered justice system and further reform of legal aid funding to ensure everyone has access to justice.”
The courts service admitted it could be three years before some sections of the justice system return to anything like normality. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We are acutely aware of the effect the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting criminal court backlog has had on all those involved in court cases.
“The recovery programme is on track and making real progress to address the backlogs. The overall number of scheduled trials has now reduced by 33% since the peak of 43,606 in January 2022, representing a 61% reduction in the trials backlog that accrued during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Through the court recovery programme we are aiming to return to a point where the number of scheduled cases being prepared for trial is around 20,000. Given the initial focus on summary trials we remain confident that summary backlog will be cleared by March 2024. It is therefore right to switch court recovery resources from summary to solemn and plans are now in place to introduce a further two additional High Court and six additional Sheriff Solemn trial courts from this month.
“Solemn cases, which involves the most serious crimes, are more challenging as the long term trend of increasing case levels continued throughout the pandemic. Our modelling projects that High Court cases will return to the revised baseline by March 2025 and sheriff solemn cases by March 2026.”
The Scottish Government said: “Our 2023/24 budget includes £42.2m for justice recovery including protecting over £26m for the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service to maintain enhanced court capacity. This has helped reduce the total number of scheduled trials outstanding by over 15,000 since January last year.
“The Criminal Justice reform Bill will progress our ambition of delivering person-centred and trauma-informed practices, including taking greater action to improve the experience of women and children and to hear victims’ voices. This will include abolishing the not proven verdict in criminal trials and delivering legislative reforms building on the recommendations of Lady Dorrian’s Review on Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases.”
Jane’s story: ‘There was so much waiting. I contemplated ending it all’
Jane was attacked by a man while she was in hospital.
She waited three years for justice and suffered mental health problems due to the attack and the ensuing delays.
She said: “To quantify what the delay of the court case did to my mental health for over three years can’t be expressed by words.
“I was sexually assaulted in January 2019. At the end of 2019, the forensics got back to me to say there was DNA and he had been charged. There would be a court case.
“Then Covid hit the UK – the closing of the courts, the groundhog effect of everyday thinking of the assault.
“After two years I was given notice that I could give my evidence pre-recorded with the perpetrator sitting in another room but, one week before this was set to go ahead, the defence applied to obtain my medical records.
“That felt like the end for me. Almost another year passed and I had had enough. I contemplated ending it all. So much waiting. I couldn’t let go of the flashbacks and strong memories as I needed to stay alert and prepared for the long-awaited court trial.
“I was choked by images and tactile sensations of how the assault made my body feel. I was deeply ashamed and felt so dirty. When I finally gave my evidence in court, I didn’t break and I told the truth.
“I have a photographic memory so just described what had been imprinted in my memory the night of the assault. A huge concern was the time lag between my giving evidence and the main trial. The defence had a few months to come up with answers to my evidence. Also, why can’t survivors be represented in courts? We are not just a witness.
“There was a guilty verdict but my attacker was only given 200 hours of community service. He was put on the sex offenders register for three years.”
Ann’s story: ‘Delays to trial shaped my life’
Ann was attacked in her early 20s.
The subsequent court case and incessant delays “utterly reshaped” her life.
She said: “The trial took place before Covid and even then it took ages. A man assaulted me and I feel as if it ripped away my 20s from me. The court case looming over you just utterly shaped my entire life. I was trying to forge my career, find my way in life and all of that was taken away from me.
“It ruined things and I think it is even worse now. I am left four years on thinking what life could have been like if this had not happened to me.
“The delays seem to be getting worse, not better and it was dire before. It was life or death for me. I was unable to function as I was so stressed by it.
“Victims are not consulted throughout the process. It was very traumatic and the waiting made it worse.
“I was attacked by a stranger and eventually the case was found to be not proven. It was sickening.”
Susan’s story: ‘Once the case went to court I received next to no support’
A female musician revealed how she was beaten over the head with a brick by a complete stranger before waiting months to see justice.
Susan, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the attack, said: “I was in court about nine times and half the time, the case wasn’t called.
“A stranger followed me, attempted to kill me with many repeated blows to my head with a red brick and after dropping the brick, his fists. The hood on my head saved my life. I had never seen the man in my life. Once the case went to court, I received next to no communication, updates or written confirmation from the courts or victim support.
“Seeing my attacker that many times face-to-face was shocking. I was desperately keen to speak for myself, but was denied the opportunity to do so. My victim impact statement was eventually read by the Sheriff, which was the first turning point for me.
“Court delays saw me obsessively re-drafting this form, being brutally honest about how this man has impacted my life.”
All names have been changed. Contact Rape Crisis Scotland free on
08088010302 or visit rapecrisisscotland.org.uk.
Call the Samaritans on 116 123, free from any phone, or visit samaritans.org
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