Authorities warned ‘intrusion’ could stop women reporting rape after prosecutions fall to 1.7 per cent.
Rape victims in Britain are to be told to hand over their mobile phones and social media accounts to police or risk seeing their cases collapse, under new guidelines that have come under fire from women's rights groups and senior police officials.
The new forms being handed out across England and Wales warn that if a complainant refuses to surrender their digital devices, or tries to prevent any personal information being shared, “it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue”.
But the move has been condemned for "treating rape victims like suspects" and support groups fear it will deter victims from coming forward to report crimes.
A group that provides legal support for victims of sexual assault has also warned police they will launch a challenge in the courts to halt the strategy.
But, regardless of these warnings, all forces started using the forms earlier this year, as part of a strategy to improve the way potential evidence is shared between officers, prosecutors and defence lawyers.
While acquitted suspects have warned of miscarriages of justice, campaigners say the demands are causing victims of assault to drop cases.
The move is a response to a barrage of heavy criticism faced by police in late 2017, when a series of high-profile rape cases were dismissed when new evidence emerged at the last moment.
One trial that year, against student Liam Allan, collapsed at Croydon Crown Court when additional mobile phone evidence came to light, and police subsequently apologized for their handling of the case. Allan had denied wrongdoing.
A Look At The Form
The form tells rape claimants that "mobile phones and other digital devices such as laptop computers, tablets and smart watches can provide important relevant information and help us investigate what happened,"
"This may include the police looking at messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts stored on your device," it adds, noting that "only the reasonable lines of inquiry should be pursued to avoid unnecessary intrusion into the personal lives of individuals.
"An estimated one in seven women has reported experiencing some form of sexual violence, placing it in the joint top five countries for the most amount of sexual assaults recorded, according to Amnesty International.
But despite this, the number of rape convictions dropped 23% in 2017-18, compared with the previous year, according to data from the UK's Crown Prosecution Service.
40 percent of cases were closed with the marker “evidential difficulties – victim does not support action”.
The Victims Commissioner said victims of sexual violence were being re-traumatised by “routinely having their personal lives disproportionately investigated and disclosed in criminal trials”.
Baroness Newlove added, “Whilst this form sets out the position from a police perspective, from the victim’s perspective it is both complex and technical [...] Many victims will just not be in a position to fully understand the implications of signing over their personal data. It is a huge decision to take at any time, let alone when you are at your most vulnerable.”
Our Chief Executive, Alexander Morgan, as a survivor of assault himself has concerns about this approach to gathering evidence. He had this to say;
"It's victim blaming. The only way this comes across is a perpetrator's defense would try and could mean a message or image where consent might be implied would be used to justify the assault/violation.
By making any cases’ success dependent on this unfiltered disclosure of victims’ personal data, it only serves the perpetrator and not the victim, and also assumes that consent once is consent always."
The Crown Prosecutions Service (CPS) Responds
On 29th April the Crown Prosecution Service released a statement which attempted to ease the concerns of victim support charities.
The statement reads, "for an investigation to proceed and be fair for both complainant and suspect, all reasonable lines of enquiry must be pursued. This is not new and the policy has not changed - mobile devices will not be needed in every case - but when they are, there is explicit guidance that only material relevant to a particular offence may be pursued, to minimise unnecessary intrusion.
It has also been wrongly suggested that phone data will be handed over indiscriminately to lawyers representing the suspect, so that it can be used unfairly to discredit complainants. This is absolutely not the case, and there is clear legal guidance in place to ensure that private information which does not assist the defence or undermine the prosecution is not disclosed to the defence.
Even where material must be disclosed, there are further legal safeguards before it can be used in the course of any trial.
The new consent forms being rolled out by police are intended to achieve a consistency of approach nationally, so complainants are not treated differently in different forces. They replace those which were already been used in some forces. They are designed to bring clarity around the process and to give victims an understanding of how their data might be used so they can have confidence to come forward and support a prosecution."
This article was written by Rachel Turpin, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Stay Brave. Rachel makes sure the voices of survivors are heard. From lobbying MPs or designing awareness campaigns, she keeps the needs of survivors high on the agenda and helps craft policy so no one is ever turned away.