LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s data protection regulator called on Tuesday for police and prosecutors to stop treating rape victims as suspects and end excessive scrutiny of their personal information which critics have likened to a digital strip search.
The UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said victims of attacks were being forced to hand over extraordinary amounts of information to the justice system about their lives from medical records to school reports, and this had to stop.
“Our investigation reveals an upsetting picture of how victims of rape and serious sexual assault feel treated,” he said. “Victims are being treated as suspects, and people feel revictimised by a system they expect to support them.”
Edwards said the issue was fuelling distrust in the system, leading to low prosecution and conviction rates. These dropped to a record low in 2019 in England and Wales, and latest Home Office data for the year to September 2021 showed only 1.3% of recorded rape offences led to a charge or summons.
Last year, the government-commissioned Rape Review into failings said digital material requested from victims should be strictly limited to what was necessary and proportionate.
“The Review has heard victims’ experience of feeling digitally ‘strip searched’ and many have been left without phones for months, leaving them without vital support at a time of immense trauma,” it said.
Victims groups welcomed the report and said it showed more needed to be done to protect victims’ privacy.
“Excessive intrusion into irrelevant and deeply personal data of rape complainants has become habitual in the justice system,” said Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said police recognised more needed to be done to improve the response to rape and sex offences, saying they would “continue to strive to protect privacy whilst observing the absolute right of defendants to a fair trial”.
(Reporting by Michael Holden, Editing by Kylie MacLellan)