Covid-19 had devastating impact on wait times for sexual offence prosecutions, judges say

New report identifies various factors contributing to long wait lists, including a ‘culture of last minute-ism’ by overstretched lawyers

Some saw a 'silver lining' to the pandemic as it forced courts to quickly adapt by adopting new technology, such as video conferencing. Photograph: Frank Miller

The Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on wait times for the prosecution of sexual offences, according to a new report for the Department of Justice.

The research found that, according to judges, lawyers and others working in the criminal justice sector, the pandemic severely exacerbated existing delays caused by underfunding of the courts.

The pandemic was an “absolute disaster” for court lists, according to one of five judges interviewed by researchers. Before Covid-19, judges said they had managed to reduce wait times for sexual assault trials down to nearly a year. However, the post-pandemic lists were “worse than ever”.

Despite the fact that “everybody put their shoulder to the wheel”, judges were pessimistic of the waiting times being reduced, the report states.


“I don’t know how we’re going to recover the ground we lost through Covid other than if we get a whole load more judges and all the support services,” one judge said.

“At this stage now, there’s such a mountain to climb, you just feel oh you know, almost what’s the point.”

Other stakeholders described how Covid-19 had caused serious delays in the pretrial stage. Gardaí said there was a shortage of child specialist interviewers as specialist garda training was halted during the pandemic.

Other gardaí blamed the special Covid-19 garda roster for contributing to delays.

Some saw a “silver lining” to the pandemic as it forced courts to quickly adapt by adopting new technology, such as video conferencing, “which had the potential to help the system become more efficient in future”.

The use of Croke Park for trials during the height of the pandemic was also described as hugely beneficial as it allowed several cases to proceed which otherwise would have been adjourned, the report states.

The research, which is being launched on Friday by the department, was carried out by Dr Marie Keenan, Dr Deirdre Healy, Dr Kate Keenan and Gemma McLoughlin-Burke BL.

All 73 stakeholders who were interviewed said delays in the prosecution of sexual assault allegations were a serious problem, with “a lack of investment in and under-resourcing of the criminal justice system” identified as the main cause.

A lack of proper protocols regarding disclosure between the Garda and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and other parties are also a major contributing factor.

This includes a lack of “clear timelines, capacity and management within some statutory third party agencies” such as Tusla, “despite the existence of the memorandum of understanding between the DPP and Tusla, the HSE and some counselling service providers.”

The report also identifies “a culture of last minute-ism” by overstretched lawyers as a factor in delays. Low fees mean lawyers are forced to take on a large caseload, “resulting in adjournments and delays when disclosure materials are examined and issues arise.”

Inadequate fees also arguably reduce the number of legal practitioners practising as criminal layers, “as practitioners decide to specialise in more lucrative fields,” the report states.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times