WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
February 01 2023
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO

Watchdog accuses police of treating victims ‘like suspects’ over indiscriminate collection of data

Watchdog accuses police of treating victims ‘like suspects’ over indiscriminate collection of data

The data watchdog has called on police forces to immediately halt collecting excessive amounts of personal information from victims of rape and serious sexual assault cases. In an opinion published today, the Information Commissioner argued that victims were being ‘treated like suspects’ insofar as they were being told to consent to hand over ‘extraordinary amounts of information’ about their lives in ‘the immediate aftermath of a life changing attack’.

There have been repeated calls to stop so called ‘digital strip searches’, blamed for plummeting conviction rates; however there have also been concerns raised by defence lawyers and campaigners about the risk of wrongful convictions in light of high profile disclosure failures such as the Liam Alan case (as reported on the Justice Gap here).

The watchdog has found police ask victims to consent to them (known as ‘Stafford Statements) accessing significant amounts of personal data including information from school records, medical histories and social service records. 

‘Our investigation reveals an upsetting picture of how victims of rape and serious sexual assault feel treated,’ commented John Edwards, UK’s Information Commissioner. ‘Victims are being treated as suspects, and people feel revictimised by a system they expect to support them. Change is required to rebuild trust that will enable more victims to seek the justice to which they’re entitled.’

The Information Commissioner’s Office report argues that the National Police Chiefs’ Council ‘must mandate to all police forces throughout the UK that they must cease using statements or forms indicating general consent to obtain third party materials (i.e., Stafford statements)’. ‘Data protection is not a barrier to fair and lawful sharing and acquisition, but data minimisation is key. Any personal data obtained relating to a victim must be adequate, relevant, not excessive and pertinent to an investigation,’ the ICO says. 

Jayne Butler, chief executive of Rape Crisis, said that for ‘far too long the police and CPS have been requesting, and at times, demanding unreasonable and excessive amounts of personal data from rape victims and survivors. It feels like to report a rape is to effectively give up your right to privacy: to expect justice you must expect scrutiny’.

According to the Centre for Women’s Justice the ICO’s new guidance as well as recent guidance from the Attorney General and CPS,  would not alleviate this problem. ‘These three sets of guidance are contradictory and confusing, with four different legal tests referred to in different places,’ the group said. One of these (the so-called ‘relevance test’) was ‘so broad it virtually gives the police free rein’, it added. ‘Whilst we welcome the Information Commissioner’s recognition of the scale of the problem and the clear guidance that police must stop using open ended consent to disclosure forms, unfortunately we consider the guidance overall is not sufficiently clear,’ commented  Nogah Ofer, solicitor at CWJ.