Girl raped aged 13 faces three-year wait for trial

time:2023-05-31 03:12:10 source:The New York Times

The father of a girl who was raped aged 13 and has been waiting two years for her case to be heard, has spoken about the devastating impact of court delays.

The girl now faces a further delay of nine months after a suitable judge could not be found to hear the case.

It is one of many criminal trials which are stuck in the court system, with funding cuts and Covid blamed for the backlog.

The government says swift action for victims is a priority.

Serious sexual offences are taking the longest time on record to go through the Crown Courts in England and Wales.

The father, interviewed by the BBC, described how the delays to his daughter's rape trial had affected her and the rest of the family. Earlier this summer, as they prepared for the case to finally be heard, they were told they would have to wait another nine months.

In a moving interview with the Today programme's Mishal Husain, the father described the trauma of the initial attack and the subsequent court delays.

It was the summer of 2020 - when Covid lockdown had been lifted enough to allow visits to parks. One afternoon, the man's daughter - who was 13 at the time - took a bus to meet some friends in a neighbouring village. When she began her journey home she was attacked in broad daylight.

"Obviously we're careful about where she goes. She wasn't out at night," explains her father.

The girl was interviewed by police. A man was caught, arrested and charged with the attack.

Later - when the family knew the case was going to trial - the girl was cross-examined. Vulnerable victims and child witnesses can have their evidence video-recorded in advance, away from courtrooms. It is then played during the trial and means, in most cases, the vulnerable person does not need to attend in person.

"This was all highly distressing but my daughter got through it… Then the nightmare started to kick in," her father says.

The family were initially looking at a two-year wait for the trial to start, in Crown Court, in June 2022. It would have been straight after the Jubilee Bank Holiday. But on the last working day before the holiday, they received news proceedings had been adjourned for another nine months - until March 2023.

The father says they received "a garbled" phone message from a support team member at the court at lunchtime - followed by an email from the jury team leader at 16:00. The email explained that the case could not go ahead because the Judicial Secretariat, which sources judges for the court, had been "unsuccessful in securing a judge".

It went on to say: "It also appears that the CPS, the Crown Prosecution Service, are not ready for the hearing to go ahead and the matter has had to be put back." The CPS says it was ready for the trial to go ahead on 6 June, the day it was originally listed for.

The news "blew us apart" says the father. "My daughter had spoken to the judge at pre-trial - she'd met the barristers, all the court officials."

The family had been promised the trial would be heard by the same judge they had met in earlier proceedings.

They accept it has been "a very difficult time" for courts since the pandemic struck in 2020, but feel this does not excuse what they have been through.

"It's just been a complete nightmare. There's a whole litany of stuff we just cannot believe," says the father.

One of the lowest points was when, just before Christmas, the family realised the alleged attacker had a job in a shop near their house.

"The guy who was charged with the rape was working 30ft away from my daughter's bedroom. We couldn't believe that."

The family called the police, who said there was nothing they could do. Then they turned to the CPS who also said nothing could be done because, while the bail conditions stipulated non-contact, there was nothing in the accused's bail terms about having to remain a certain distance from the family.

The CPS took a statement from the victim with a view to preparing an application to amend the bail conditions.

But the father says he felt the CPS, courts and the police just "didn't seem interested" and he ended up approaching the retail chain which had employed the man. Soon after, the accused stopped working at the shop.

The father is also critical of the local social services team - which he says only met his daughter once - and he "never saw hide nor hair of them again".

He describes the support provided by all the official bodies involved in the case as a "continuum of disappointment" - with "little or no interest after the man was charged".

His daughter is now 15. She will be 16 before the new trial date - three years older than when the alleged attack took place. So how is she dealing with it?

Her father has been "amazed how strong she has been... She wanted to go to court", he says.

But the process has left the family floored. And the rape ordeal, and subsequent delays, have severely affected his daughter's life.

She used to be "a very happy-go-lucky sort of person" before the attack. Now she suffers from mood swings and spends a lot of time in her room crying, he says.

"My daughter doesn't want cuddles, not even from her mother," he says.

The teenager stopped going to school, and for the past two years she has been home-schooled.

He would like to be able to move on because every time something about the case comes up, it distresses his daughter all over again. "She doesn't want to go out, we can't take her anywhere."

The family have even thought of moving away.

"We want to get some kind of resolution that it's over, we can move on. We're all flattened, just totally devastated by the whole thing."

In his BBC interview, he admits he has regrets about taking the case to court. His family were unprepared for the "grief and frustration" they experienced when dealing with the judiciary.

"It seems like total incompetence."

He says trying to get through to the CPS, and sometimes the police, was frustrating. They would be told: "Oh, that officer doesn't work here any more, he's on leave, he's training."

Their local MP did help - and forwarded a letter from the region's chief prosecutor for the CPS, in which it said they were "concerned" and had asked for the matter to be investigated further.

But the letter also said that the listing of court hearings was a "judicial function" - and any complaint in relation to the delay should be addressed to the court, not the CPS.

It's a case of "passing the buck", says the father.

The family wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, on the day they heard the trial had been postponed. They had no response until the Today programme got in touch. The letter they received apologised for the delayed response and expressed sympathy.

It continued: "The decision about whether a trial can go ahead and when, is a matter for the judiciary. This includes any adjournments. It's not possible for government ministers or officials to intervene in this process.

"This isn't through a lack of sympathy for the situation that your family is in, but because judges are completely independent, and it is important that nothing is done to undermine this position."

Responding to our request for comment, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Restoring the swift access to justice victims deserve is our absolute priority and we are spending almost half a billion pounds to reduce wait times, as well as boosting funding for victim support to £460m over the next three years.

"Our actions had already brought the pandemic-induced backlog down by around 2,000 cases but the barristers' strike action is undermining those efforts and will only see more victims face further delays."

This story is based on Sinead Heekin and Mishal Husain's interview for the Today programme on 31 August. UK audiences can hear it on BBC Sounds.

If you've been affected by the issues raised in this report, details of organisations offering information and support for domestic abuse and adoption are available via BBC Action Line.

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