A MASSIVE pandemic backlog of 42,000 criminal cases across Scotland's courts has lead to fears of victims "taking the law into their own hands", ministers have been told.

The warning came from Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victims Support Scotland, who said her organisation was worried about the effect on victims' mental health of having to facing "the ongoing trauma" of repeatedly delayed trials.

As well as what she said were "rare" cases of victims deciding to retaliate against the perpetrator out of a sense of frustration at the backlogs of cases in the justice system, Wallace raised concerns offenders may end up escaping justice as victims pull out of giving evidence to court following lengthy waits with the average time between a crime happening and the case going to trial currently four years.

Wallace, pictured below, told too of victims attempting to take their own lives under the pressure of repeated last minute postponements to court hearings, while others had sought to take the law into their own hands and retaliate against the accused.

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"Every single day we see the impact of the court backlog on victims," she told The Herald.

"It was a problem pre-Covid and during Covid it has been further exacerbated. If you think about it from a witness point of view you feel as if you've got to remember exactly what happened because you've got to give evidence to the court, you have to make sure your memory is right. So you are keeping the crime front and centre of your mind all the time and you can't move on with your life.

"We already know that court is a traumatising experience for witnesses - it's an intimidating atmosphere, you can come face to face with the accused."

She added: "It's not just the length of the delay and length of the backlog. One of the biggest issues is the fact a case isn't heard on the day the witness is anticipating. People are psyched up about giving evidence and then there is a adjournment the night before.

"We have some families we are supporting where there's been eight adjournments."

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Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown.

The Herald asked Wallace about the effect on victims when the trial repeatedly doesn't go ahead at the last minute.

She said: "It has a massive impact. We know that people have attempted to take their own lives and we have had to get blue light ambulances out to a couple of people during the pandemic and adjournments have been an issue.

"We are also very worried about what called witness attrition. This is the issue of witnesses coming out of the system altogether."

Wallace said during the pandemic her organisation was seeing the same number of "safeguarding incidents" - when someone is at harm to themselves or someone else - in a month that it saw pre Covid in a year. She added the figures were two or three a month.

"The most common things are suicide or self harm, but it can also be that someone is going to retaliate against a perpetrator," she said.

Asked if the retaliation was prompted by frustration over the length of time the case, was taking, she said: "That one is very rare, but we have seen that someone has reported to us that they were basically going to take the law into their own hands and we had to phone the police....Delays in the process are exacerbating people's mental health issues and the trauma that they have experienced.

"They are also having a disproportionate impact on children. With children who have been victims of crime, the proportion of their life taken up with the crime is huge. A three year delay for a child makes a big big difference [to their life and development]".

Wallace was then asked about the possibility of people not getting justice given the 42,000 backlog.

She said: "My focus at the moment is that I will support the system in any way it can to get through the backlog to make sure that does not happen, but obviously we are keeping a really close eye on other jurisdictions and how they are dealing with their backlogs because the potential of victims not seeing justice  - well we can't just think about it. It's so awful for people."

Scottish courts were closed at the start of the pandemic in a bid to reduce the spread of the virus. As the country re-opened, some court and tribunal business got underway either in virtual, online form or through a limited number of cases where participants (judges, lawyers, witnesses, the accused, media and the public) attended in a socially distanced manner, and remote jury centres were set up.

The backlog has has impacted on the accused with some held on remand, meaning extended periods in prison and extra strains on an already stretched prison service. 

The Victim Support Scotland chief's intervention came a day after Justice Secretary Keith Brown revealed a radical and long term shake-up of the country's criminal justice system with a £52.3million fund to help tackle some of the problems including the backlog.

"While we continue to recover our services and reduce the backlog of cases, we must avoid going back to the system as it was before the pandemic," he told Holyrood on Wednesday.

"Instead, we should embrace innovative approaches that allow our services to operate efficiently and with the needs of victims at their heart."

Brown has set out three priority areas of action - tackling crimes against women and children, including low conviction rates for sexual crimes; supporting victims including with the appointment of a Victims' Commissioner and reducing the prison population - currently amongst the highest in Europe per head of population and despite  longstanding attempts to reduce it.

During his opening statement he acknowledged "that delay and uncertainty caused great stress to victims and survivors."

He added: "Covid-19 has put significant pressure on our justice system, increasing the time for cases to progress through the criminal justice system, and that brings additional stress to victims."

Under the Covid Recovery and Reform Bill, introduced to Holyrood last month, the Scottish Government proposed measures to tackle the court backlog including a temporary extension to statutory time-limits for criminal proceedings and the allowance for some procedural hearings to be held over audio or video link as well as more flexibility in the programming of court business.

Brown told the Herald: “The court backlog will be cleared, but it will take time to clear it and we are no different from any other jurisdiction. We have done a huge amount already in terms of using remote juries or recording evidence that is given to courts.

"These things are good and many will continue on, but we have to look for new ways to reduce that backlog wherever we can and in doing that we are engaging with all our partners, like Victim Support Scotland, to look at how we can do that. We are very keen to focus on the backlog and have allocated additional resources for that purpose.”