Police data requests in rape cases ‘problematic in proportionality and focused on perceived victim credibility’

Home Office report finds that many requests for external data lack the necessary rationale and are often geared to probing a victim’s reliability, rather than establishing facts of the incident

A Home Office review of 139 rape investigations found that police often collected external data via “requests that were problematic in terms of their necessity, proportionality and focus on perceived victim credibility and reliability”.

The newly published case file assessment – which forms part of ongoing work on delivering the objectives of the government’s End-to-End Rape Review, first published three years ago – reviewed instances of police requests for third-party material during rape investigations. There were 342 such requests across the 139 cases being examined.

“[This] included requests for GP records, education records, social services records, counselling records and Independent Sexual Violence Adviser notes,” said the Home Office report.

Although police seeking to obtain this data “are required to have a clear rationale based on a line of inquiry justifying the necessity of the request”, only a little over half – 176 – of the requests recorded such a rationale.

Moreover, about one of three (32%) of these recorded rationales were “focused on establishing perceived victim reliability or credibility, instead of focusing on the incident itself”, according to the review. In cases where the victim was aged under 18, more than half (52%) of rationales for requesting third-party data were focused on victim credibility.

Police requests to obtain social services or educational records were, in the majority of cases, concerned with assessing the reliability of the victim.

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By far the most commonly requested data type was GP records, which were sought in 71% of the 139 cases examined in the review. Counselling or therapy notes were requested in 29% of cases, followed by hospital records on 25%.

The report concluded: “This case file review found that there were examples of TPM (third-[arty material) requests that were likely to be unnecessary… disproportionate… and speculative/generic, rather than focused on a line of enquiry. Likewise, approximately a third of TPM requests were made to probe a victim’s reliability or credibility, and this was concentrated amongst victims who were under 18 at the time of the incident, who accounted for over 70% of such rationales. The majority of forms that showed evidence of having been seen by the victim did not contain information on the precise type of TPM being requested or limits to the TPM request such as a timeframe.”

But it added that, since the assessment took place, “the government has introduced new clauses as part of the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure that police are absolutely clear on their responsibilities when requesting personal information about victims, ensuring that these requests are necessary and proportionate, and that they follow a reasonable line of enquiry.”

“The new duties will also require police to provide clear and consistent information around TPM requests to both the victim and the third party who are being asked to provide information,” the report said. “This includes the information being sought, why it is being sought, and how the material will be dealt with once it has been obtained.”

The case file review took place in the early months of 2023, and examined cases handled by eight forces – chosen to represent a variety of urban and rural areas: Avon and Somerset; Cambridgeshire; Hampshire; Northamptonshire; Northumbria; South Yorkshire; Thames Valley; and West Yorkshire.

The report notes its inherent shortcomings in providing a representative picture of rape investigations, as it considered cases where a charge was being brought – something which happens in only 3.6% of investigations.

Sam Trendall

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