Corbyn attacks moves to get rape victims to hand mobile phones to police
Jeremy Corbyn has criticised moves to get rape victims to turn over their mobile phones to the police.
The Labour leader’s intervention came after rape complainants were told they risked prosecutions against their attackers not going ahead unless they allowed their digital devices to be looked at.
Mr Corbyn said the “disturbing” practice risked allowing more rapists to get away with their crimes.
Consent forms, which ask permission to access messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts, have been rolled out across the 43 forces in England and Wales.
The move is part of the response to the disclosure scandal, which rocked confidence in the criminal justice system when a string of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed after crucial evidence emerged at the last minute.
Mr Corbyn tweeted: “We need to do all we can to support victims of sexual violence to come forward and report cases to the police.
“With rape and sexual assaults already under-reported, this disturbing move risks letting more rapists get away with it.”
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.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said digital devices will only be looked at when they form a “reasonable line of inquiry” and only “relevant” material will go before a court if it meets “hard and fast” rules.
“If there’s material on a device, let’s say a mobile phone, which forms a reasonable line of inquiry, but doesn’t undermine the prosecution case and doesn’t support any known defence case, then it won’t be disclosed,” he said.
And the Crown Prosecution Service said: “It is not true that complainants in rape cases must automatically hand over personal data on their digital devices or run the risk of the prosecution being dropped. Mobile phone data, or social media activity, will only be considered by the police when relevant to an individual case.”
But privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has dubbed the measures “digital strip searches” and said “treating rape victims like suspects” could deter people from reporting crimes.
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said the forms are just part of the problem as police and prosecutors look to harvest third-party material, such as school records and medical notes.
“The police are really saying ‘If you don’t let us do this, the CPS won’t prosecute’,” she said.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman told a Westminster briefing the issue was complex.
He said: “Clearly, this is a complex area and, while disclosure is an important component of the criminal justice system, to ensure a fair trial, the police have acknowledged that the use of personal data in criminal investigations is a source of anxiety and that they understand the need to balance a respect for privacy with the need to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry.”
In the lead-up to trials, police and prosecutors are required to hand over relevant material that can undermine the prosecution case or assist the defence.
The regime came under sharp focus from the end of 2017 after 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.
The CPS launched a review of every live rape and serious sexual assault prosecution in England and Wales and, along with police, has implemented an improvement plan to try to fix failings in the system.
Some 93,000 officers have undertaken training while police hope artificial intelligence technology can help trawl through the massive amounts of data stored on phones and other devices.
In rape and sexual assault cases, prosecutors now use disclosure protocols previously used in terror trials.
The digital consent forms can be used for complainants in any criminal investigations but are most likely to be used in rape and sexual assault cases, where complainants often know the suspect.
The forms state: “Mobile phones and other digital devices such as laptop computers, tablets and smart watches can provide important relevant information and help us investigate what happened.
“This may include the police looking at messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts stored on your device.
“We recognise that only the reasonable lines of inquiry should be pursued to avoid unnecessary intrusion into the personal lives of individuals.”
Police and prosecutors have sought to reassure victims of crime that only material relevant to a potential prosecution will be harvested, but the forms state even information of a separate criminal offence “may be retained and investigated”.
They also state: “If you do not provide consent for the police to access data from your device you will be given the opportunity to explain why.
“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.”
Mr Allan, now working with miscarriage of justice campaign group Innovation Of Justice, said it was “completely understandable” that rape complainants might not wish to hand over data stretching back a long time before the alleged offence and with no relevance to the allegation.
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, in his case, he “did not even think to ask” for details of the complainant’s phone contacts with friends around the time of the alleged assault.
“That was some of the valuable evidence,” said Mr Allan. “If we have to ask for these things, not knowing how the process works, then we are at a disadvantage and it’s not a fair trial.
“The consent form is a good step, as long as it’s carried out in the right way, as long as it’s not trawling through unnecessary information.
“I was innocent. I was asked to give over my phone. Does that mean I lose all my rights to privacy because I was accused?
“It has to work both ways … We deserve the same rights until the point of conviction.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office said it has launched an investigation into use of data extraction technology on the mobile phones of suspects, victims and witnesses.
DON’T DIG IN TO DEFEND MOVES TO TURN OVER PHONES OF RAPE VICTIMS, MINISTERS TOLD
A senior Labour MP has called on the Government to “take action” and “not to dig in” over police guidance linked to the mobile phones of rape victims.
Labour MP Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) shared an email she received from a young woman in her constituency, who had all the contents of her phone examined, stretching back five years, including private conversations and photos.
Ms Harman said her constituent felt as though she was the one on trial, adding in the Commons: “This document that has been issued today called Digital device extraction is quite simple in that it says ‘give us all your devices, we will download and review all the material, including deleted material so we can give it to the suspect and use it in the trial’. If you read the document that’s what it says.
“I do implore the minister, because I know he is committed to justice for victims as well as justice for defendants, not to dig in and say that this is a good thing. There is a real problem out there that has exposed by this and he really needs to take action on this.”
Home office minister Nick Hurd said there were a huge raft of problems underlying this issue.
He added: “In the past, I hope not in the future, there are failings in how the police use their powers and fulfil their duties and responsibilities.
“One of things I take encouragement from is the candour of the police leadership in recognising that actually at the heart of this is a problem of culture in the police and the need for them to take disclosure more seriously and not see it as an administrative bolt-on.
“The guidance couldn’t be clearer in making sure that the examination of the mobile phones of complainants is not something that should should be pursued as a matter of course and should and where it is pursued the level of extraction should be proportionate.”
Yvette Cooper, Labour chairwoman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said that the document should be read from the point of view of a victim which makes it appear as though they will have their mobile phone taken away for several months.
She added: “It is pretty obvious that this will deter people from coming forward.”
Responding, Mr Hurd said the police have assured him they have worked closely with victim groups in terms of this document and are will to continue working with groups in the future on this matter.
Conservative MP Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) said those falsely accused of rape are also victims.
He added: “A young friend of mine was wrongly accused of rape. It made his life a misery for months and months and months – bursting into tears and all the rest of it because of the stress.
“It was only through telephone evidence that emerged that it was shown that his accuser had been sexting him, even though he denied that he hadn’t seen this person for years.
“So may I just say to the minister that he should say to the police this is the right course of action, of course it has to be proportionate, but as my honourable friend said, justice has to be done and that includes those people who have been accused of rape when in fact they are innocent.”
Speaking in the House of Lords, Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti said: “The anxiety is not at consent being sought in a targeted manner in particular cases, where the electronic interaction between a complainant and a suspect is relevant to an investigation.
“The anxiety and the concern… is that this practice is too routine and the trawling of data too blanket.”
She added: “Forms are no substitute for resources.”
Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove said: “To ask people to sign this document without having legal representation… is not right.”
She said she had “no idea” about the new form until she was informed by a journalist.
Former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Hogan-Howe stressed the need for resources to deal with the material.
He added: “It will be seen as an intrusion into the privacy of a victim, even though I’m sure it’s not intended that way. We have got to a stage where a person is entitled to withdraw consent at the point of the sexual offence.
“It doesn’t matter about sexual history. It doesn’t matter about what happens after the offence.”
Lord Hogan-Howe went on: “I really do wonder as a point of principle why it is relevant to search someone’s communications before or after. Surely it is the event and the consent. I think we are in danger of moving away from that fundamental principle. This seems to be a backward step.”
Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Pictured (c) David Cheskin / PA Wire.