London (CNN)Rape victims in Britain are to be told to hand over their mobile phones and social media accounts to police or risk seeing their cases collapse, under new guidelines that have come under fire from women’s rights groups and senior police figures.
New standardized forms being rolled out by police in England and Wales ask people alleging a variety of crimes, including rape and sexual assault, for permission to access their messages, emails, photographs and social media accounts, in order to improve the chances of a successful prosecution.
But the move has been condemned for “treating rape victims like suspects” and women’s rights groups fear it will deter victims from coming forward to report crimes. A group that provides legal support for victims of sexual assault has also warned police they will launch a challenge in the courts to halt the strategy.
“Most complainants fully understand why disclosure of communications with the defendant is fair and reasonable, but what is not clear is why their past history (including any past sexual history) should be up for grabs,” Harriet Wistrich, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, said in a statement.
“We seem to be going back to the bad old days when victims of rape are being treated as suspects,” she added, revealing the group’s plan to challenge the approach.
The move is a response to a barrage of heavy criticism faced by police in late 2017, when a series of high-profile rape cases were dismissed when new evidence emerged at the last moment. One trial that year, against student Liam Allan, collapsed at Croydon Crown Court when mobile phone evidence came to light, and police subsequently apologized for their handling of the case. Allan had denied wrongdoing.
The form tells rape claimants that “mobile phones and other digital devices such as laptop computers, tablets and smart watches can provide important relevant information and help us investigate what happened,” according to the Press Association.
“This may include the police looking at messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts stored on your device,” it adds, noting that “only the reasonable lines of enquiry should be pursued to avoid unnecessary intrusion into the personal lives of individuals.”
In the UK, an estimated one in seven women has reported experiencing some form of sexual violence, placing it in the joint top five countries for the most amount of sexual assaults recorded, according to Amnesty International.
But despite this, the number of rape convictions dropped 23% in 2017-18, compared with the previous year, according to data from the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service.
‘Excessive digital trawls’
The new plans have been criticized by some within the force, with Vera Baird, Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, warning the request will prevent rape victims from coming forward.
“We need to treat complainants in rape cases with exactly the same fairness and support that we treat complainants in any other kind of case and not single them out and require them to disclose their life history to convince the authorities they are fit for the criminal justice system,” she told PA.
Privacy groups have also heaped criticism on the proposals. “These excessive digital trawls are simply a knee-jerk response that further delay and obstruct justice,” said Griff Ferris, a legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch.
“Treating rape victims like suspects in this way delays investigations and trials, prolongs distress for both victims and suspects, deters victims from reporting and obstructs justice,” Ferris added.
“Urgent reform is needed so victims no longer have to sacrifice their private lives to bring criminals to justice.”
The UK is one of just eight European countries surveyed by Amnesty International that has laws defining sex without consent as rape. The vast majority only recognize rape when physical violence, threat or coercion is involved, the group said in a report last year.
A National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) spokesman said: “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.
“However, existing legislation doesn’t anticipate the volume of data officers are now met with; and legal advice we have received suggests that seeking consent is a way of ensuring balance.”