Police chiefs call for digital evidence consent forms for rape victims to be withdrawn

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson

Controversial consent forms allowing police officers to examine the phone data of rape victims should be withdrawn, police and crime commissioners have said.

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.

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”.

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lead on criminal justice, told the Observer: “We have no doubt that this form, as it currently stands, should be withdrawn, or it is likely to result in a loss of confidence in the police, the CPS and the criminal justice system more broadly.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

ITV News spoke to a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by someone she knew and says her case is now being closed after she refused to hand over her phone to police.

The woman, whose identity ITV News is protecting, said she faced "giving up her privacy, to get justice" or maintaining that privacy but she could "be raped with impunity."

The APCC’s victims lead and Northumbria police and crime commissioner Dame Vera Baird also told the Observer 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.”

Julia Mulligan, police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire – who revealed in January she was raped aged 15, said it was “hard enough having to live through a sexual attack or rape without having to expose oneself to this ‘in return’ for an investigation”.

In a joint statement, the CPS and National Police Chief's Council said: “It is not true that sexual assault victims are being singled out and forced to hand over their phones.

"They are potentially relevant to all case types and the need to pursue relevant lines of enquiry in digital devices is not new.

“We are very clear that devices should only be looked at when relevant and private information not connected to the case must not be shared with the defence or shown in court.

"The forms make it clear that consent is only being requested when pursuing a reasonable line of enquiry.

“The dreadful stories from victims this week demonstrate exactly why we have been so keen to introduce a clearer, more consistent approach to gaining consent for accessing data.

"We have invited key groups to work with us as we continue to develop guidance and look for solutions to the complex balancing act between privacy and a fair investigation.”

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.

It said the new form aimed to strike a balance between respecting victims’ right to privacy, meeting disclosure obligations and conducting a “proportionate investigation”.

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

All CPS prosecutors and more than 93,000 police officers and staff are said to have received updated disclosure training.

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.