Rape victims can block ‘digital strip searches’ by refusing to hand over phones

·3 min read
Woman blurred holding phone - Tero Vesalainen
Woman blurred holding phone - Tero Vesalainen

Rape victims will be given a legal right to refuse to hand over their phones to police under new laws to end “digital strip searches” that have been blamed for plummeting conviction rates.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, on Monday put forward amendments to their policing Bill that any victim must be informed that refusal to hand over their phones will not automatically lead to a police investigation being dropped.

The amendments will also make it illegal for police to place “undue pressure” on a victim to agree to their phone being searched. Victims must also be told what information is being sought and what line of “reasonable” inquiry officers are pursuing.

It follows claims that rape victims have been forced into “digital strip searches” where they have been told refusal to hand over their phones will end inquiries.

The law change follows calls from Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner, and campaign groups for a more “offender-centric approach”, where police and prosecutors focus on the actions and behaviour of the alleged attacker rather than testing the validity of the victim.

Rape charging rates have slumped from 8.3 per cent to 1.6 per cent in five years as the number of victims withdrawing has doubled to 40 per cent, largely due to intrusive police investigations into their digital communications, lengthy court delays, and the trauma of reliving their attack in court.

The amendments come on top of plans to extend the use of pre-recorded video evidence by victims to spare them the trauma of appearing in court and a requirement that victims’ phones should be returned by police within 24 hours.

Dame Vera has proposed similar amendments to limit police trawling victims’ medical, school, social services and therapy records for evidence that might undermine their credibility as a witness. They are backed by Baroness Newlove, the former victims’ commissioner, and Lord Anderson, a leading QC.

“The intrusion is worse because at least the digital download is a victim talking to another person. At least it is them speaking but social services or school reports will be a third person expressing an opinion that could be completely wrong and of which the victim has no knowledge,” said Dame Vera.

“Faced with handing over their personal information, many victims drop their complaints, leaving them with no resolution and the public with the risk of a criminal free to offend again.”

Dame Vera cited the case of a rape victim who was cross examined in court over her decision to forge her mother’s signature to get out of a school lesson 10 years previously.

The forged letter had been considered by the police to be “relevant” to disclose to the defence which used it in court to cast doubt over the validity of her allegations.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said she had cried after the cross examination. “I was in a catatonic state for a day. I felt that I was on trial. He hated me. [He] said I preyed on older men – I was 15 or 16.

“[He] said I had done something like this before i.e. made complaints that were lies. There were not guilty verdicts. It put me off ever giving evidence again. I would not do it.”

The proposed legal safeguards would require that material could only be requested by officers in pursuing a “reasonable line of inquiry” and also that there would have to be an audit trail to show when, how and why consent was given by the victim.

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