New consent forms have been introduced in 43 police forces across England requiring victims of sexual assault to agree police access to their mobile phones- including unlimited access to messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.

The recent introduction has emerged following the collapse of a string of serious sexual assault cases in England and Wales. The cases collapsed due to crucial evidence coming to light at the last minute, and the idea of allowing access to victim’s personal information at an early stage has been encouraged to prevent this happening again.

Privacy campaigners have labelled the new procedure invasive and unnecessary- likening it to a ‘digital strip search’.

At present, there is a gap in the law which means police cannot currently force complainants or witnesses to give up their phones or other electrical devices. The consent forms are seen as a solution to this problem and will ensure that all information potentially relative to a case is available at the beginning of the investigation process.

However, privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch have highlighted that the move may well deter people from reporting crimes and said that the justice system will be “treating rape victims like suspects”. At least two women are planning a legal challenge to the introduction of these consent forms.

The form states: “If you do not provide consent for the police to access data from your device you will be given the opportunity to explain why”. With the nature of many police reports involving sexual assault being highly sensitive, it has been suggested that the justice system is making the process of reporting a serious crime too traumatic to even consider for some people.

The justice system is continually progressing to make the process for sexual assault victims to report crimes as accessible as possible. However, victims may now feel that they are unable to come forward at risk of their privacy being invaded. For example, the content held on a digital device may bear no relevance to a case but may include personal content which a person would be otherwise unwilling to disclose. This begs the question; are we taking a step back in encouraging a supportive environment for victims of sexual assault to come forward?

The form includes a paragraph which reads: “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.”

It is clear that this progression in investigative tactics has been formulated to assist in solving and dealing with cases at the earliest stage, however the legal jargon used and nature of the types of sexual assault cases involved may lead victims to drop the allegations all together. Victim Support are among some of the organisations who have said this move could discourage victims from coming forward.

In support of the new introduction, Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill has assured that digital information would only be looked at where it is a “reasonable” line of enquiry, with only relevant material going before a court if it meets stringent rules. This is hopefully a reassuring statement but nevertheless highlights the complexity of the process for potentially vulnerable victims.

Here at Farleys we have a specialist team who deal with claims involving sexual assault. If you have been a victim of sexual assault and wish to speak with a solicitor about a potential claim in confidence please contact us on 0330 134 6430 or contact us online.