A year ago I wrote about a rape trial that had to be postponed because there was no judge available. The delay shocked me because the case had already been going on for more than five years. It highlighted a wider problem in the criminal justice system across England and Wales where thousands of victims, witnesses and defendants have been left in limbo, waiting for their day in court.
Twelve months on from my blog, I can now provide an update on the case. It's a miserable tale.
In October 2017, a teenager told police that she had been raped and sexually assaulted in Brighton. She was 15.
The girl provided an account of what she said had happened, recorded by police on video, and within three days the 25-year-old suspect, Ali Osman, had been arrested.
Then the case appeared to grind to a halt. The years went by - 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 - without any tangible sign of progress. Finally, in October 2021 a decision was made to charge Osman - four years after the victim had come forward.
Police investigations into rape are often complex and take time. They require sensitivity, patience and persistence. A surge in the reporting of sexual offences over the past decade has placed forces under huge pressure during a period when they have faced budget cuts and a chronic shortage of detectives. In this particular case, as I wrote last year, there had been problems in gathering 'third party' evidence, while the outbreak of Covid, in March 2020, and changes in police personnel also slowed things down. An additional factor was that the victim was involved in a separate court case.
Nevertheless, this was an extraordinarily prolonged investigation, given that the allegations were recent and both victim and suspect had been interviewed within days. It is difficult to explain and hard to justify.
Sussex Police, which conducted the inquiry, says it is thankful to the victim for supporting its investigation but acknowledges that cases must be resolved more quickly. “As a force we are committed to improving our service to victims and recognise that, as is the case nationally, rape conviction rates and investigation timeliness need to improve," says Detective Superintendent Dave Springett.
Part of the delay in the Osman case was down to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), although there's some dispute as to how much. The CPS says it made the decision to charge him within eight weeks, which is a relatively short period of time; Sussex Police says charges were brought around six months after submitting a "case file" to the service. Whatever the delay, worse was to come.
After being charged, it took more than two months before Osman was required to make his first appearance in court, in January 2022. Given that he was facing such serious allegations, it's hard to fathom why he hadn't been ordered to attend court immediately.
During the summer of 2022, the victim was cross-examined on video, in a 'Section 28' hearing, ahead of the trial which had been listed for October. But, at the last minute, the judge who had been assigned to the case pulled out because a separate trial he was presiding at was over-running. A call went out for another judge with the necessary training and expertise but none could be found. The only alternative was to push the trial back: it was scheduled for the end of February 2023 - 16 months after the suspect had been charged.
The trial did go ahead in February - but the jury were unable to agree on verdicts, so a re-trial was ordered. With a record backlog of some 65,000 Crown Court cases, it meant there would be another yet another delay - eight months.
The re-trial, which took place in October, did at least produce a result. Osman was found guilty of two offences of sexual activity with a child, but cleared of two counts of rape and two other charges. This month he was sentenced to a prison term of 18 months, suspended for 18 months. In addition, he will have to attend 30 'rehabilitation activity requirement' sessions and complete 200 hours of unpaid work. He must also register with the police as a sex offender for ten years.
At the sentencing hearing the judge remarked on the delays in the case, pointing out how stressful it had been for the victim. It was also noted that it had been six years since Osman had committed the offences, during which time he had not been convicted of anything else. Whether the judge would have jailed him rather than suspending the prison term, if the case had been dealt with more speedily, is unclear. But Sussex Police believes the sentence is 'unduly lenient' and has asked the Attorney General's Office to refer it to the Court of Appeal.
So the case is not yet over, meaning there'll be more delays and anxiety for those involved. If appeal judges do get to consider whether Osman, who's now 31, should serve his sentence in prison, instead of in the community, their observations about the impact of delay on sentencing will be significant. Although this case is one of the most egregious, it's far from the only one to be affected by the logjam in police investigations, prosecution decisions and court hearings. Some courts are so crammed they're unable to schedule trials until 2026.