The newly appointed victims commissioner has clashed publicly with prosecutors in an increasingly acrimonious dispute over police access to the mobile phones of those who report being raped.
Launching a campaign challenging police “digital processing notices”, Dame Vera Baird QC warned victims to be prepared to hand over everything, “however irrelevant”, so that the defendant can “allege you’re lying”.
Baird’s cautionary message is part of a campaign involving a coalition of 10 civil liberties organisations which claim that police and Crown Prosecution Service download requests amount to an illegal “digital strip search”.
But prosecutors reacted furiously, accusing Baird of “scaremongering”, distorting the criminal investigations process and discouraging victims from reporting attacks.
The vast volume of personal data stored on mobile phones is creating severe problems for prosecutors, detectives, defendants and their lawyers – particularly in rape cases.
The difficulty of assessing what should be disclosed in the digital age is pitting the pursuit of justice against privacy rights.
Police and prosecutors have warned that in some cases if victims do not allow the contents of their phones to be downloaded, they may not be able to pursue investigations.
The new approach was introduced after the collapse of a series of rape trials – including that of Liam Allen – in which defendants were only belatedly granted disclosure of phone messages that undermined the accusations against them. Prosecutors insist that just because material is downloaded, it does not mean it will all be examined.
Responding to Baird’s interpretation of the risks, Zoe Gascoyne, a deputy chief prosecutor with the Crown Prosecution Service, stressed that police would only ask for mobile phone evidence “if there is a reasonable line of enquiry”.
Relations between victims’ organisations and the CPS have deteriorated sharply after campaigners launched a judicial review challenge of what is alleged to be a covert policy change blamed for a dramatic collapse in the number of rape cases going to court.
Meetings that were due to take place last month to discuss reforms to “digital processing notices” were cancelled at short notice. The CPS insists that “decisions to prosecute are based on whether our legal tests are met – no other reason – and we always seek to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so.”