SCOTLAND'S most senior law officer has called for radical measures to tackle the "extraordinary number" of sexual violence cases caught up in court backlogs.

Dorothy Bain QC, who was appointed Lord Advocate earlier this year, said she is deeply troubled by the backlog of cases awaiting trial due to the pandemic.

She said the delays "predominantly and disproportionately" affect women and children.

Ms Bain made the comments while giving evidence to Holyrood's Criminal Justice Committee. 

She said she would support a pilot of "judge-led" trials without a jury for serious sex crimes, as proposed in a recent review led by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian.

David Harvie, Crown Agent of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, told MSPs there were 13,400 outstanding Sheriff Court trials before the pandemic.

This has risen to more than 32,400.

Meanwhile, the number of outstanding sheriff and jury court trials has increased from 1,330 to more than 3,500.

Ms Bain said: "The backlog of cases and timescale for recovery troubles me deeply.

"It impacts adversely on accused persons who are awaiting trial, victims and witnesses who are unable to obtain resolution, and also on the lawyers and staff working within the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. 

"It delays justice for all and consequently individuals and communities do not obtain the protection of the law, which can be obtained from sentences of imprisonment, protective orders, court-imposed disqualifications. 

"But for me, out of all of the difficulties and challenges presented, my acute concern relates to those highly vulnerable victims of serious gender-based violence, that is predominantly women and girls, whose cases are backed up in the system of prosecution and in the High Court where these very serious cases are tried. 

"Out of 1,934 cases post-indictment, currently 1,290 of these are cases of serious sexual violence and currently, as at the end of September, 837 of these cases – that's a 57 per cent increase since lockdown – are awaiting trial.

"Into this equation I would add that there will be a significant increase in cases being indicted in the next two years.

"These cases of serious sexual violence make up 70% of the High Court work and 80 to 85% of cases that proceed to trial. 

"The delays arising out of the backlog therefore predominantly and disproportionately affect women and children. 

"My acute concern arises out of the fact that the crimes of sexual violence do require a distinct approach, because of the nature of the crime and the impact on the victims, causing enormous harm and often resulting life-enduring consequences for the victims."

Ms Bain said the backlog is an "enormous problem" and highlighted the "extraordinary number" of sexual violence cases awaiting trial and the impact this has on the most vulnerable people in society. 

She said there is expected to be a 50% increase in indictments in the next two years.

The Lord Advocate said the solution "remains a political one".

She added: "It's whether or not the Parliament is prepared to recognise the profound problems that we face in the prosecution of these very difficult cases because of the backlog."

She said: "I do consider we need to take a radical step."

She added: "Insofar as what we're faced with now, what this committee understands now is that the question must be asked – is there another way?

"Is there another way now, to recover and renew in these cases? Is there an alternative way of proceeding that is an interim measure given the pandemic?

"Is there another way? And if there is, we are morally obliged, I consider, to look at it."

Ms Bain said a trial without a jury "doesn't impact" on the right to a fair trial.

Mr Harvie said case loads were already rising "quite significantly" before the pandemic, particularly in the solemn courts dealing with the most serious crimes.

He asked: "Why is it 80% of our trials in the High Court are serious sexual offending?...There's something far more profound about that as a society."