A new policy means that sexual assault investigations could be dropped if they don’t hand over their mobile phones to the police.
The reasons why people decide not to report a rape or act of sexual violence are myriad. It can be a gruelling process of triggering interviews and medical examinations, which helps to explain why only 15% of people who have experienced sexual assault choose to report it to the police. With just 5.7% of all reported cases resulting in conviction, it’s little wonder why more people don’t come forward.
And now, there’s another hurdle for victims of sexual violence to jump during an investigation.
It was announced on Monday (29 April) that those reporting rape will be asked to hand over their phones to the police for investigation. If they decide not to, there is a risk that the prosecution won’t go ahead. This is being done across England and Wales, using consent forms that ask for permission to access information such as messages, emails and photographs.
The move has been made in response to a number of rape and sexual assault allegations that have collapsed after crucial evidence emerged last minute. 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.
Max Hill, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said digital devices will only be looked at when it forms a “reasonable line of enquiry” and only “relevant” material will go before a court if it meets “hard and fast” rules.
However, many organisations have responded by saying that the move could actually stop victims from coming forward. Although the form states that victims will be given the chance to explain why they don’t want to give consent for police to access data, it also explains that refusing to give permission could result in the investigation being discontinued.
Independent charity Victim Support has spoken out against the policy, with spokesperson Rachel Almeida telling the BBC: “We know that rape and sexual assault is already highly under-reported and unfortunately this news could further deter victims from coming forward to access the justice and support they deserve.”
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, added: “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. There is no reason for rape investigations to require such an invasion of women’s privacy as a matter of routine.”
The Centre for Women’s Justice is also launching a legal challenge alongside two alleged victims, arguing the consent form discriminates based on sex, breaches the Data Protection Act and the right to privacy.
Following last year’s news that Metropolitan Police have dropped their policy of automatically believing those who report instances of rape or sexual violence, Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England and Wales told Stylist.co.uk: “We work with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, rape and all forms of sexual violence. Among the many reasons people we support tell us they don’t pursue criminal justice for what they’ve been through is their fear of not being believed.
“There’s still a widespread myth that people who report sexual offences are more likely to be lying than people who report other kinds of crimes; this is completely untrue but it can stop survivors getting the justice and support they want and deserve.
“If we want to improve criminal justice for the thousands of sexual violence victims and survivors currently failed by the system, we need to think carefully about our messaging and how we can encourage, not deter, reports.”