The UK Information Commissioner has called on the criminal justice sector to immediately stop collecting excessive amounts of personal information from victims of rape and serious sexual assault cases. The call is published in a Commissioner’s Opinion which informs the sector how to use victims’ personal data in compliance with data protection laws.
Currently, victims are being told to consent to handing over extraordinary amounts of information about their lives, in the immediate aftermath of a life-changing attack. The ICO found police in the UK ask victims to consent to them accessing significant amounts of personal data. Known as a “Stafford statement” in England and Wales, this gives police access to a victim’s information that can include information from school records, medical histories and social service records. The UK Information Commissioner expects this practice to stop immediately, and also makes further recommendations about how information is handled.
John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner, said: “Our investigation reveals an upsetting picture of how victims of rape and serious sexual assault feel treated. 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.
“This work brings home why we do what we do at the ICO. This Opinion isn’t about data protection and data processing, it is about relationships, trust, human rights and human dignity.” Growing evidence suggests that as the sector fails to gain the trust and confidence of victims, their involvement in the process is not sustained. This has led to very low charge and conviction rates.
This burden is also not shared equally, as victims of rape are more likely to be female, have a disability and identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The Commissioner believes his Opinion should contribute to improving victims’ confidence in the process.
Mr Edwards said: “Change as a result of this report could have a greater impact on people’s lives than any other work my office has been involved with.
“I know the sector will support these recommendations. Change is possible and it must happen. The law requires it and my office will push for it.
“Most importantly, it is what people affected by these heinous crimes have a right to expect.”
Claire Waxman, London’s Victims’ Commissioner, said: “Today’s report from the Information Commissioner makes sadly familiar reading and the message is clear: the justice system is asking too much of rape victims and denying them justice.
“I originally called for this investigation after hearing about the invasive and disproportionate requests being made of victims and the lack of support in understanding their privacy rights, making rape victims feel like they were the ones on trial and forcing them out of the process. I am yet to see a case where primary school records or counselling notes hold any relevant information, yet these requests are regularly made.
“The findings of this report, and many others, show that more must be done to safeguard rape victims’ privacy.”
Jayne Butler, Chief Executive Officer – Rape Crisis England & Wales, said: “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.
“The Commissioner’s recommendations have the potential to drastically improve the experiences of victims and survivor’s going through the criminal justice process. If implemented, these changes could support the police and CPS to prioritise victims’ rights and ensure they have a voice.”
The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said: “I welcome this well researched and carefully considered analysis. Excessive intrusion into irrelevant and deeply personal data of rape complainants has become habitual in the justice system, despite my and others’ vocal protests over many years. Commissioner Edwards cites the deep personal impact this can have on rape complainants and I share his view that this has played a crucial role in the collapse of rape prosecutions.
“I am pleased we now have the authority of this key report to add to my own calls on the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to immediately stop the excessive and over-intrusive requests for personal data. The government must now legislate to limit the pursuit of third-party material in the Victims’ Bill.”
The Opinion recommends that the sector implements a number of measures and builds upon the ICO’s previous work on mobile phone extraction.