New Policy Requires Rape Victims to Give Phones to Police

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Rape victims will be forced to hand over their phones to police if they want their reports of crime investigated, under new rules unveiled by the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The new policy will see rape victims across the country required to sign a consent form to give the police full permission to access victims’ messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.

Whilst victims can refuse to sign the consent form, they are warned that their case may not be pursued if they do not give police their phone. The consent form states that if victims “refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which would enable the defendant to have a fair trial, then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.”

The NPCC and CPS say that the new requirement is being introduced in order to make it easier for prosecutors and police to identify and handle evidence. It follows the high-profile collapse of a string of rape trials last year due to insufficient evidence.

However, privacy and women’s campaign groups say the new policy treats victims like criminals, subjecting them to a “digital strip search”, with many expressing fears that victims would be discouraged from reporting rape attacks as a result.

Policy seeks to improve evidential practices

Issues with improper disclosure of evidence from the prosecution to the defence led to the collapse of multiple rape trials last year at a late stage. In some cases, men were held on bail for as long as two years, before being freed after evidence such as text messages emerged which cleared their name.

Police chiefs say the introduction of consent forms is therefore a “step forward in the right direction” towards improving and clarifying the process of gathering evidence.

One man whose trial for rape collapsed last year in light of texts which had not been disclosed to the defence voiced support for the measure, saying that alleged attackers:

"..deserve the same rights until the point of conviction.”

New Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill maintains that a victim’s digital records will only be looked at as part of a "reasonable line of enquiry”, with "relevant" material permitted to be used in court only if it meets "hard and fast" rules. Urging the necessity of the new policy, the DPP said that ultimately, the introduction of consent forms would hopefully lead to more successful prosecutions of sexual offences.

Critics however say that the policy will make it even harder to secure prosecutions for rape offences. Last year, 4 in 10 rape cases reported to police were ultimately dropped because of evidential difficulties, including a lack of victim support – up from 30% in 2016 and 2017.

Measure sparks ICO investigation and legal challenges

At least two rape complainants are preparing legal challenges to the new rules, according to the Centre for Women’s Justice. One woman who is contesting the new rules after recently reporting a rape to police said that the requirement was disproportionately invasive, stating:

"The data on my phone stretches back seven years and the police want to download it and keep it on file for a century.”

"My phone documents many of the most personal moments in my life and the thought of strangers combing through it, to try to use it against me, makes me feel like I'm being violated once again,” she added.

In addition to individual complaints, the Information Commissioner's Office is conducting an investigation into the new policy, with campaigners terming the measure “a public relations disaster in the criminal justice system.”

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