When Alice Cross met her abuser at the age of 16, her life changed overnight.
The teenager from Norwich was groomed online by 34-year-old Trevor Webb, who had made her feel special after approaching her online in January 2018 – but within weeks allegedly controlled what she ate and the clothes she wore.
Over the months that followed, Webb trafficked Alice through a website for sex workers and forced her to perform sex acts in hotels for other men for his own financial gain.
Webb also allegedly asked her to carry out his “kidnap” fantasies, instructing Alice to act afraid as he drove her to remote fields to fantasise about how he would hide her body.
His hold over her would eventually come to an end in September 2018, when the abuse was reported to the police and Webb was arrested.
Webb pleaded guilty to two counts of arranging to facilitate the sexual exploitation of a child and making an indecent image of a child at Norwich Crown Court in August 2021.
Further accusations of rape, grievous bodily harm and extreme pornography were investigated by police but not pursued, with Alice told by officers that they “wouldn’t be able to prove it was non-consensual” if it went to trial.
After a three-year wait to see her abuser face justice, Webb was handed a prison sentence of 22 months after his lawyer argued the Covid-19 court backlog had impacted his mental health.
As it took over three years for the case to come to court due to the lengthy investigation and reports required, Webb’s lawyer argued that he had been signed off for work as a result of the stress of not knowing his fate.
“I was sitting on my sofa with my mum listening to the sentencing through an audio link and I genuinely just burst into tears,” Alice told The Independent about the day he was jailed in December 2021.
“I was crying and sobbing for a really long time. It was not something anyone had prepared me for, we were prepared for it to be years. It was very shocking to say the least.”
Within 11 months, Webb was released from prison, Norfolk Police confirmed. As he served less than a year behind bars, he was not eligible for any rehabilitation requirement programmes and has been re-released into the community with little intervention.
Yet the trauma he subjected Alice to has been life-changing. Now aged 23, Alice has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a neurological condition and says she has struggled to maintain a job.
Alice, who received help from the charity Imara and now works there to help other victims of sexual abuse, said she was appalled when his lawyer successfully argued that Webb “suffered” as a result of not knowing his fate due to pandemic backlogs.
“I think there should be a mandatory minimum sentence for crimes like that and obviously Covid is gone now but it should never have been a mitigating factor,” Alice said. “Covid has nothing to do with the victim and nothing to do with the offender’s crimes.
“There is no excuse on this earth that would explain why he only got 11 months in prison after what he did to me, which altered my entire life and left me with lifelong injuries both mentally and physically.”
For cases of this nature and especially those involving victims of Alice’s age, defendants can be imprisoned for up to seven years according to sentencing guidelines.
During the pandemic in June 2020, guidance from the chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Holroyde, said that courts must “bear in mind the practical realities of the effects of the current health emergency”.
He added that courts should consider mitigating factors and consider that the impact of immediate imprisonment would be “particularly heavy” for certain groups of offenders.
Alice’s story comes as victims of rape and sexual offences (RASSO) face record waiting times due to underfunding and backlogs in the criminal justice system.
Prior to the pandemic, the number of cases of this nature awaiting trial had reached 3,606. Ministry of Justice figures from July to September 2023 show that figure has increased to 9,792 cases, and has increased by 23 per cent in just the last year.
The criminal justice system is grappling with an overall backlog of almost 67,000 outstanding cases, as well as a prison population at breaking point.
In November, victims’ commissioner Claire Waxman told the London Assembly that some rape cases were waiting for more than six years to reach trial, causing a number of victims to withdraw from proceedings. One defence lawyer told The Independent that he had recently received a trial date for the latter end of 2026, despite the alleged rapist being charged in 2022.
John Riley, who both prosecutes and defends RASSO cases, said: “In terms of referring to Covid or any reason as to why a case has been delayed, and relying on that as a basis of mitigation – well, delay works in both directions. It can be a source of trauma for the defendant.
“Obviously the ideal is that cases are dealt with as quickly as they possibly can be, but there is a great input of work and review to make sure everything is in place before you take a case to trial. Because of the difficulties with regards to funding and resourcing, you’ll inevitably find you get problems up to the trial date.”
Sarah Berry-Valentine, a spokesperson for the charity Refuge said: “This is just another example of how the court system is used against victims and survivors, another example of the victim-blaming narrative that we know all too well at Refuge.
“I wish I could say this is an anomaly and we don’t hear of this happening, but the Covid backlogs have been a huge issue, not just with defence lawyers using that particular mitigation, which is horrific, but most importantly underplaying and undermining the impact on survivors in a more general sense.
“We really can’t underestimate the impact and the toll the justice system currently has on the emotional and physical wellbeing of survivors. We’ve seen cases dropped due to wait times, survivors feeling forced out from being able to access the justice that they deserve to rebuild their lives.
“It’s familiar to see cases held up for years due to these backlogs, and in 2024 we really need to ask why the pandemic backlogs haven’t been completely and fully addressed and why this excuse is still being used. There are wider issues ongoing in the legal system and it’s a huge issue for survivors who are seeking justice.”