Police and prosecutors face backlash as rape victims asked to hand over phones

Officials are under pressure to rethink moves to get rape victims to turn over their mobile phones to the police amid concerns sex offenders are escaping conviction due to the practice.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the new disclosure measure "disturbing" after it emerged complainants were being asked to give police consent to access messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.

Victims were warned that refusing to allow investigators to access their phones could mean prosecutions were halted.

The move 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.

However, the consent forms, which have been rolled out across the 43 forces in England and Wales, were branded a "knee-jerk reaction" by campaigners.

They warned victims were being put off from going through with prosecutions due to the intrusion into their personal information.

The head of the powerful Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper, said the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police chiefs should withdraw the form and "start again".

"Blanket approach it conveys with no safeguards will prevent victims reporting rape & deny justice," she tweeted.

Baroness Newlove, the Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, said she had "grave concerns" about disclosure and feared victims of sexual violence were "routinely having their personal lives disproportionately investigated".

Speaking in the House of Lords, the Tory peer said she was unaware that the form existed until she was approached by a journalist – despite being the Government's victims tsar.

Claire Waxman, the Victims' Commissioner for London, said the new consent forms had been developed "without any consideration to victims' needs and rights to privacy".

In comments to The Times, she said that every rape victim she had spoken to was being asked to hand over their phones.

"A high percentage of the cases being dropped is because women are refusing to allow access to very personal information, which is totally irrelevant to the investigation," she said.

Ms Waxman also questioned if asking victims to consent to share personal data was lawful and has asked the Information Commissioner to investigate.

The Information Commissioner's Office said it had launched an investigation into use of data extraction technology on the mobile phones of suspects, victims and witnesses.

Police and prosecutors say the forms are an attempt to plug a gap in the law, which cannot force complainants or witnesses to disclose their phones, laptops, tablets and smart watches.

Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said digital devices would only be looked at when they formed a "reasonable line of inquiry" and only "relevant" material would go before a court if it met "hard and fast" rules.

New Director of Public Prosecutions
Max Hill has defended use of the consent forms (CPS/PA)

Meanwhile, the CPS said: "It is not true that complainants in rape cases must automatically hand over personal data on their digital devices or run the risk of the prosecution being dropped. Mobile phone data, or social media activity, will only be considered by the police when relevant to an individual case."

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said the issue was "complex".

He said: "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 a respect for privacy with the need to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry."

In the lead-up to trials, police and prosecutors are required to hand over relevant material that can undermine the prosecution case or assist the defence.

The regime came under sharp focus from the end of 2017 after a string of defendants, including student Liam Allan, then 22, had charges of rape and serious sexual assault against them dropped when critical material emerged as they went on trial.

The CPS launched a review of every live rape and serious sexual assault prosecution in England and Wales and, along with police, has implemented an improvement plan to try to fix failings in the system.

Liam Allan apology
Liam Allan's trial collapsed after crucial evidence emerged (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Some 93,000 officers have undertaken training, while police hope artificial intelligence technology can help trawl through the massive amounts of data stored on phones and other devices.

The digital consent forms can be used for complainants in any criminal investigations but are most likely to be used in rape and sexual assault cases, where complainants often know the suspect.

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