Police chief hits out over plans to examine rape victims’ phones

Northumbria Police and Crime commissioner Dame Vera Baird is leading calls for controversial consent forms allowing police to examine the phone data of rape victims should be withdrawn,
Dame Vera Baird.Dame Vera Baird.
Dame Vera Baird.

Campaigners have dubbed the introduction of the forms a “digital strip search” in a backlash against efforts by prosecutors and police chiefs to respond to the rape cases disclosure scandal.

New digital disclosure consent forms have been rolled out to all 43 police forces across England and Wales that ask victims of crime to give officers access to messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.

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Victims were told that refusing to allow investigators access to their data could mean prosecutions were halted.

Prosecutors and police chiefs said the approach applied to all crimes, but the examination of data would only take place with “informed consent” and where there were “reasonable lines of inquiry”.

David Lloyd, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) lead on criminal justice, told the Observer: “We have no doubt that this form, as it currently stands, should be withdrawn, or it is likely to result in a loss of confidence in the police, the CPS and the criminal justice system more broadly.

“Many companies have made clear that technology can help us with this issue - allowing prosecutors and police to have access only to relevant information on mobile devices.”

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The APCC’s victims lead and Northumbria police and crime commissioner Dame Vera Baird said that, in large numbers of sexual assault and rape cases, “material unconnected to the facts of the case” was passed to defence lawyers by the CPS and used in court “to try and discredit the complainant”.

She added: “CPS policy officials have admitted that demands for this kind of material have gone too far in the past.”

The commissioners’ comments come after police chiefs and prosecutors wrote to rape victim support groups to acknowledge their concerns.

The letter from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and College of Policing was sent to End Violence Against Women Coalition, Centre for Women’s Justice and The Survivors Trust among other organisations.

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Victims groups were invited to help develop improvements to the way investigators handle victims’ and witnesses’ data.

The new consent forms are part of a package of measures launched in January last year to address disclosure challenges.

The action is part of the response to the disclosure scandal, which rocked confidence in the criminal justice system when a string of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed after crucial evidence emerged at the last minute.

Dame Vera said there was a “public safety issue” that could see serial rapists walk free if victims do not come forward because they don’t want every element of their private life examined.

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“This is not consent,” she warned. “This is an authority figure telling you to sign a form as soon as you have finished an interview which may be reliving what is one of the most horrific experiences of your life. If you don’t agree that’s the end of the case and you’ve just done the interview for nothing”.