British police are demanding that victims of rape and domestic violence hand over access to their phones and social media accounts or face their investigations being dropped.
Consent forms asking for permission to access information including emails, messages and photographs have been rolled out across England and Wales.
If the complainant refuses to hand over their digital devices, or tries to prevent any personal information being shared, “it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue” according to new forms
The Independent reports: Police were warned that the “traumatizing” intrusion might stop victims reporting sexual assault and abuse.
But all forces started using the forms earlier this year, as part of a strategy to improve the way potential evidence is shared between officers, prosecutors and defence lawyers.
The “national disclosure improvement plan” was sparked by public outrage over a series of rape cases that collapsed over newly discovered messages and photos in 2017.
While acquitted suspects have warned of miscarriages of justice, campaigners say the demands are causing complainants to drop cases.
Figures released last week show that only 1.7 per cent of reported rapes were prosecuted in 2018, and 40 per cent of cases were closed with the marker “evidential difficulties – victim does not support action”.
The Victims Commissioner said victims of sexual violence were being re-traumatised by “routinely having their personal lives disproportionately investigated and disclosed in criminal trials”.
“Whilst this form sets out the position from a police perspective, from the victim’s perspective it is both complex and technical,” Baroness Newlove added.
“Many victims will just not be in a position to fully understand the implications of signing over their personal data. It is a huge decision to take at any time, let alone when you are at your most vulnerable.”
She called for victims to be offered free access to independent legal advice and for judges, rather than detectives or prosecutors, to decide what must be disclosed in disputes.
“Changing the paperwork might improve the efficiency of the process, but it does not deliver fairness for victims,” Baroness Newlove said.
“This form is unlikely to do anything to help reverse the fall in prosecutions for rape and sexual violence. I am concerned it might have the opposite effect, with even fewer victims willing to pursue their cases through to trial.”
Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions, insisted that phones were not being seized “as a matter of course”.
He told journalists that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) does not instruct police to probe devices on “a purely speculative basis [but] only when reasonable and proportionate”.
Victims have already reported being verbally told that their attackers will not be caught if they do not hand over their phones, and police and prosecutors said the forms make the process clearer.
They give consent for police to download the contents of digital devices including phones, laptops, tablets and smartwatches, and to examine messages, call data, photographs, emails, internet browsing history, apps and social media accounts.
The victim may be investigated if evidence of a separate criminal offence is discovered, the form states.