Child sexual abuse prosecutions and convictions roughly halve in 4 years

Our latest research finds child sexual abuse (CSA) prosecutions and convictions are falling and young people are facing increasingly long and distressing court delays.

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Distress includes sleeping and eating problems, depression, panic attacks and self-harm due to a lack of support in the criminal justice system.

Our results from Freedom of Information requests paint a worrying picture of their experience:

  • Prosecutions for CSA in England and Wales have more than halved from 6,394 in 2016/17 to 3,025 in 2020/21, while convictions dropped by 45% from 4,751 to 2,595 over the same period.
  • Time taken for CSA cases to reach court and be completed has increased by 5 months in the last 3 years – the average time being 1 year and 10 months last year.

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The impact of cuts to Ministry of Justice budgets

This data is published following a 25% reduction in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget between 2010/11 and 2019/20.1

England and Wales have also experienced 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.

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.2

Our 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’s been no review or commitment to tackle the significant fall in CSA cases.3

We’re calling on Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor, to urgently review the fall in prosecutions and convictions.

This would involve tackling the delays and backlog in CSA cases and using the upcoming Victims’ Law to ensure young people have the support they deserve to give evidence and recover from abuse.

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.”

 

We're calling for a government review

In response to our latest analysis, we’re 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 be consistent support for young witnesses, including:

  • tailored, child-centred support from Independent Sexual Violence Advisors
  • the use of special measures such as pre-recorded evidence
  • specialist communication support from registered intermediaries to help children give their best evidence in court.

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We've heard from young people about their experience of the justice system through Childline.

One young person said*:

“I was sexually assaulted over a year ago. I ended up reporting it as I knew what happened wasn’t right. It’s been months since then and I’m only now having to give evidence in court, just when things were starting to get back to normal. Being in court was harder than I thought – they kept asking loads of questions. I get that’s what they have to do, but I felt like they didn’t believe me. Since then, I keep replaying the events in court over in my head, wondering if I said the wrong thing. To be honest, I’m not bothered about the outcome anymore – I just want it to be over quick, and for people to stop worrying about me.”

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Another 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.”

Childline provides specialist pre-trial support and post-trial therapy to young people and says they can and must be supported to rebuild their lives.

Reporting and recovery can happen under one roof

The government should also invest in joined-up support services for young people who have experienced abuse.

Child Houses bring together multiple safeguarding agencies like the police and social services under one roof to support children recovering from sexual abuse.

They’re set up to allow witnesses to pre-record evidence in child-friendly settings, minimise the trauma of having to appear in court and provide rapid access to therapeutic support without being impacted by court delays.

The Lighthouse is the first of its kind in the UK, with services provided by the NSPCC and our partners, including University College London Hospital (UCLH) and The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trusts, Camden Council, The Metropolitan Police Service, and Brandon Centre, Respond and Solace Women’s Aid.

"I only have to tell the story once."
Child using The Lighthouse in London

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We’re keen to see new Child Houses funded and set up across the country so more young people can benefit from life-changing support.

We're working hard to ensure we're still here for children. Will you help us?

DISCLAiMER

*This is a true story but photographs have been posed by a model.


References

  1. 1. The House of Commons Library released an insight briefing in 2020 that noted in 2019/20 the total MoJ budget was around 25% lower than in 2010/11.

  2. 2. The National Audit Office’s Reducing the Backlog in the Criminal Courts report.

  3. 3. The government’s End-to-End Rape Review Report set out an action plan for improving the Criminal Justice System’s response to adult rape in England and Wales.