Police will end ‘digital strip search’ tactic of demanding mobile phones from rape victims after some were told prosecutions would be stopped if they did not comply
- The practice was rolled out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) last year in response to the disclosure scandal
- However a string of defendants had charges against them dropped when critical material emerged as they went on trial
- Campaigners dubbed their introduction a ‘digital strip search’ and raised fears that it would deter people from coming forward with complaints
Police forces in England and Wales are to withdraw controversial ‘digital strip search’ forms that allowed officers to examine the mobile phones of rape victims.
The practice – which gave officers access to messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts – was rolled out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) last year in a bid to standardise procedures across all forces as part of a response to the disclosure scandal.
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.
But the digital consent forms were heavily criticised when it emerged that victims of crimes, including rape, were told that refusing to allow investigators access to their data could mean prosecutions were halted.
The practice – gave officers access to messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts of victims. Pictured: a stock image of a woman suffering pain
A string of defendants, including student Liam Allan, (pictured) then 22, had charges of rape and serious sexual assault against them dropped when critical material emerged as they went on trial.
Campaigners dubbed their introduction a ‘digital strip search’ and raised fears that it would deter people from coming forward with complaints.
Big Brother Watch Director Silkie Carlo warned just last month victims were ‘being systematically denied justice if they defend their data rights’.
An 18-month investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office found ‘excessive amounts of personal data’ were often being extracted and that the NPCC forms do not make clear the lawful basis for the request.
And a Court of Appeal judgment provided a set of legal principles for the disclosure of data from complainants in a rape and sexual offences cases.
The NPCC said on Thursday that the forms will be replaced with an interim version from August 13, which will implement the principles set out in the judgment, before a permanent version is produced.
Assistant Chief Constable Tim De Meyer, NPCC lead for disclosure, has written to all forces in England and Wales to inform them of the change.
He said: ‘Police and prosecutors have a duty to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry in every investigation, and to disclose any material that undermines the case for the prosecution or assists the case for the accused.
‘This is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system, which ensures that trials are fair.
‘No victim should feel discouraged from reporting a crime to the police.
‘Searches of digital devices should not be automatic and will happen only when the investigating officer or prosecutor considers there to be a need to access information to pursue a reasonable line of inquiry.
‘We will still explain this process fully to victims and witnesses.’
The Centre for Women’s Justice, which brought a legal challenge, arguing that the use of the forms was ‘unlawful, discriminatory and led to excessive and intrusive disclosure requests’, welcomed the move.
Director Harriet Wistrich said: ‘We are relieved that these forms have finally been withdrawn from use, but they should never have been used in the first place.
‘Their effect has been to delay rape cases and deter many victims from coming forward or continuing with their cases.
‘We will work with the defendants to ensure something fair and proportionate is put in its place.’
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