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Girls & Women

UK Rape Victims Asked to Hand Over Phones and Social Media Accounts or Risk Their Cases


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
The UN’s Global Goals include Goal 5 for gender equality, which calls for an end to violence against women, and Goal 16 for peace, justice, and strong institutions, which works to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice. Join the movement by taking action here to promote equal rights and access to justice. 

People who have been raped or sexually assaulted in England and Wales are reportedly being asked to give police permission to access their phones and social media accounts — or risk their cases collapsing. 

The practice is part of a police effort to bring potential evidence into the open, after a number of rape and sexual assault cases collapsed as a result of crucial evidence emerging late in the trial, according to the BBC

Women’s rights groups and senior police figures have, however, criticised the rollout as being invasive and “treating rape victims like suspects.” 

Take action: Tell World Leaders to Redouble Their Efforts by Amending Laws to Prevent Sexual Violence

Complainants are reportedly presented with a consent form, asking them to give police permission to access their phones — including their messages, emails, images, etc. — and their social media accounts. 

While the digital consent forms can be used in any criminal investigation, they’re most likely to be used in rape and sexual assault cases, according to the BBC. That’s because complainants often know the suspect, and may have previously interacted with them through their mobile phones or on social media platforms.

The form adds: “If you refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which would enable the defendant to have a fair trial then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.” 

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The form highlights that “only the reasonable lines of enquiry should be pursued to avoid unnecessary intrusion into the personal lives of individuals.” 

However, there is also concern that the consent form would deter survivors of assault from reporting the crimes. 

The UK is in the top five countries in the world for the number of sexual assault cases recorded, according to Amnesty International — with an estimated 1 in 7 women having reported sexual violence. 

Despite a rise in the number of incidents reported, however, the number of rape convictions fell 23% in 2017-18, according to data from the Crown Prosecution Service — meaning that 2018 had the lowest prosecution rate for rape in a decade, according to the Guardian

The End Violence Against Women Coalition published a statement in response to news reports on Monday, strongly objecting to the new guidelines. 

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Rachel Krys, co-director of the EVAW Coalition, said in the statement: “We have an extremely serious problem with prosecuting rape in this country, and it is a fact that most rapists get away with it.”

“Part of the reason for this is that investigations too often focus on women’s character, honesty, and sexual history, despite rules which are supposed to prevent this, instead of the actions and behaviour of the person accused,” she added. 

She said that, through the new consent forms, “these prejudices and the tendency to make a rape investigation about women’s honesty and history will be further stoked.” 

“It is an attempt to make intense scrutiny of victims routine and accepted, when for many years we have attempted to ensure the investigation and trial process is fair to those reporting rape,” she said. “There is a pressing public interest in prosecuting this very serious and harmful crime, and victims shouldn’t be coerced into sacrificing their privacy to get the crimes against them investigated.” 

She added: “What is proposed today is a backwards step and it is time for comprehensive change in our response to rape.” 

Vera Baird, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, told the Press Association that complainants in rape cases need to be treated with “exactly the same fairness and support that we treat complainants in any other kind of case, and not single them out and require them to disclose their life history to convince the authorities they are fit for the criminal justice system.” 

One group, the Centre for Women’s Justice, said on Monday that it is preparing a legal challenge of the policy, working alongside privacy defenders Big Brother Watch. 

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“Most complainants fully understand why disclosure of communications with the defendant is fair and reasonable, but what is not clear is why their past history (including any past sexual history) should be up for grabs,” said Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, in a statement. 

“We seem to be going back to the bad old days when victims of rape are being treated as suspects,” she added. 

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) said the council “understands that how personal data is used can be a source of anxiety. We would never want victims to feel that they can’t report crimes because of ‘intrusion’ in their data.” 

“However, existing legislation doesn’t anticipate the volume of data officers are now met with: and legal advice we have received suggests that seeking consent is a way of ensuring balance,” they added.