Rape victims are “lucky” if their case is heard in court within four years of making a complaint amid “increasing delays” with prosecutions, lawyers have warned.
MPs were told complainants just get fed up and “drop out of the system” as they wait for justice after reporting an allegation to police.
Senior barristers and solicitors told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that a lack of resources and funding could be major factors behind the low prosecution rates for rape.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, vice chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “There are increasing delays which, I have to say, is very depressing and distressing.
“Having seen – in certainly my early years of practice – how cases involving complainants and sexual offences will be expedited, now you’re lucky if the case is heard within four years between complaint and trial.
“And it’s not all due to do with backlog.”
Complainants “just get fed up and they drop out of the system”, she said, adding: “It’s a lot of stress, they want to move on with their lives.”
She said there had been an “increased delay” from the point of complaint to police to a charging decision.
A lack of sufficient support and communication as well as miscommunication over how their private information will be handled were all examples she raised of what could affect a victim’s decision to continue supporting the prosecution.
There is no longer a “continuous officer” assigned to the victim or the case, she said, adding that court hearings being listed, but then delayed at the last minute, sometimes leads complainants to say: “I’m not coming back.”
Figures published earlier this month showed police forces in England and Wales had recorded the highest number of rapes and the second highest number of sexual offences in a 12-month period.
Separate data revealed the proportion of suspects being taken to court had fallen to a record low and remains the lowest for rape cases.
Derek Sweeting, chairman of the Bar Council, said a lack of resources could be one of the main reasons behind a drop in rape prosecutions, telling MPs: “I’m suggesting it’s a very significant cause of the problems that we have within the system at the moment.”
The reduction in “capacity, ability and experience” among lawyers and police officers in this area was “endemic”, he added.
Ellie Cumbo, head of public law at the Law Society of England and Wales, said any “positive” improvements proposed as a result of reviews of policies and procedures “cannot take effect in an infrastructure that is lacking”.
Mr Sweeting added: “Without some guarantee that there’ll be sufficient resourcing, then we’re not going to be in a position to make good all of those deficits.”
It comes as Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, said judges should make greater use of powers to clear the public gallery in courtrooms during rape trials as part of efforts to encourage more victims to come forward.
Complainants in rape and serious sexual offences cases can ask that the public – including supporters of the defendant – be excluded from the courtroom while they are giving evidence either in person or by videolink under so-called section 25 measures in criminal evidence laws.
But the Crown Prosecution Service said the measure is rarely used.
In a speech at a crime summit in Manchester on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Hill said: “Sadly, we know many rape survivors either do not report an offence or withdraw from a prosecution because they find the criminal justice process too traumatic.
“We have listened to these concerns and are committed to improving every aspect of how we handle these offences so that victims feel supported to stay on board with a prosecution.
“We hope encouraging greater use of section 25 measures will go some small way to making the process easier for survivors and help them to give their best evidence so we can present the strongest possible case in court.”