Police chiefs in call over digital evidence consent forms for rape victims

Controversial consent forms allowing police officers to examine the phone data of rape victims should be withdrawn, police and crime commissioners have said.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(APCC) lead on criminal justice, told the Observer: “We have no doubt that this form, as it currently stands, should be withdrawn, or it is likely to result in a loss of confidence in the police, the CPS and the criminal justice system more broadly.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.”

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

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.