Women's groups condemn new policy that asks victims of sexual assault to hand over their phones to UK police

One organization said there was a risk of treating victims as suspects.

April 29, 2019, 9:20 AM

LONDON -- A new policy intended to get victims of crime in the U.K. to hand over their mobile phones has been met with condemnation from digital privacy and women’s groups.

Victims of crime will now be issued a “digital evidence extraction” form and be expected to share their phone with police in cases where it is “reasonable” to do so, a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) spokesperson told ABC News.

“We understand that how personal data is used can be a source of anxiety and have developed the new forms to provide clear and consistent information on this,” the spokesperson said. “Mobile telephones should not be examined as a matter of course and we have made that very clear in our guidance to police and to prosecutors. However, in circumstances when it is necessary – both for gathering evidence and meeting our disclosure obligations – we hope the clearer information we have provided will help complainants give free, specific and informed consent.”

The policy is not specifically aimed at sexual assault victims and the new consent forms are designed to standardize police procedure across the U.K.

The move, however, has been met with criticism from women’s rights groups and sexual violence campaigners.

The charity Victim Support said Monday that the forms could prevent victims from reporting crimes.

“By handing over their phones, they are giving access to all of their most personal information – pictures, contacts and private messages – and this could leave them feeling even more violated and that they are the one being investigated,” a spokesperson for the charity told ABC News. “By not reporting the crime victims are not able to seek the justice.”

The Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) is now preparing a legal challenge against the new policy, arguing that excessive disclosure requests are intrusive.

”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,” Harriet Wistrich, director of CWJ, said in a statement. “We seem to be going back to the bad old days when victims of rape are being treated as suspects.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson told reporters that the issue was “complex."

"We want victims to have the confidence to come forward and report crimes knowing that they will get the support they need and that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice,” he said. "The police and the CPS will work with victims and the Information Commissioner's Office to ensure that the right approach is being taken.”

The policy comes after the CPS reviewed over 3,600 rape cases in 2018 due to concerns about the disclosure of unused material, with 47 prosecutions for rape quashed as a result. The CPS said that a common theme in the review was the failure to properly examine key evidence such as text, social media and emails during investigations.

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