Politicians criticise guidelines to request that victims submit their devices for examination
Rape victims could be discouraged from coming forward if new guidelines force them to hand over their phones to police, MPs from across the political divide have warned.
Tory MP Maria Miller, who chairs parliament’s cross-party Women and Equalities Committee, said consent forms being brought in by police forces across the country could “undermine” victims’ fight for justice – as a string of senior Labour politicians also criticised the guidance.
The new standardised document has been drawn up by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for use across the 43 forces in England and Wales. It follows the collapse of a number of high-profile rape cases after exchanges between accusers and the accused came to light.
The form asks for a victim’s permission to access digital devices and social media accounts and says: “If you 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.”
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But Miller, a former Cabinet minister, warned that the move could deter some complainants from speaking out – while shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti slammed the idea of letting police “trawl” through victims’ social media accounts before launching an investigation.
Miller told the Evening Standard: “Real progress has been made by the police and specialist support organisations to support rape victims to come forward. An important part of this has been a shift away from victims feeling as if they have to prove their innocence. The prospect of giving police material not relevant to their case could undermine that work.”
Baroness Chakrabarti said: “Women, who are the overwhelming majority of rape victims, are already discriminated against in judicial system. A trawl through their social media only reinforces the idea they are in the dock. This is the effect of the purported ‘consent form’. What is required instead is legislative action and increased government spending to improve detection and conviction rates.”
That view was echoed by senior Labour MP Harriet Harman, who served as women and equalities minister in Gordon Brown’s government.
She told the BBC’s World at One: “It’s an overreaction which is a blanket response which will do nothing but traumatise further victims and complainants in rape and sexual assault cases and result in women being even less likely to report or support a prosecution than they currently are now… It is already putting women off and it will only make things worse and it’s unfair. They are not the ones on trial.”
‘Not as a matter of course’
Charity the Centre for Women’s Justice and privacy group Big Brother Watch have already said that they plan to mount a legal challenge to the new forms.
But Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave, who serves as the criminal justice lead at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said police had “a duty to pursue all reasonable lines of enquiry”.
“We understand that how personal data is used can be a source of anxiety. We would never want victims to feel that they can’t report crimes because of ‘intrusion’ in their data,” he said. “That’s why a new national form has been introduced, replacing force versions, to help police seek informed consent proportionately and consistently.”
Downing Street on Monday acknowledged that the new guidance could be a “source of anxiety” – and said the CPS would continue to work with victims and the Information Commissioner’s Office “to ensure that the right approach is being taken”.
“Clearly this is a complex area and while disclosure is an important component of the criminal justice system to ensure a fair trial, the police have acknowledged that the use of personal data in criminal investigations is a source of anxiety and that they understand the need to balance the respect for privacy with the need to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry,” Theresa May’s official spokesperson said.
A spokesman for the CPS said: “Mobile telephones should not be examined as a matter of course and we have made that very clear in our guidance to police and to prosecutors. However, in circumstances when it is necessary – both for gathering evidence and meeting our disclosure obligations – we hope the clearer information we have provided will help complainants give free, specific and informed consent.”