A rape complainant contacted more than 40 law firms in six weeks to find someone who could help her with a judicial review, it has emerged. The woman, who recalled her ordeal at a parliamentary event last week organised by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said victims need legal representation and advice from the moment they go to the police.
The event, attended by Vera Baird QC, the victims' commissioner, and Labour MP Jess Phillips, was held to mark the release of Digital Strip Searches, a report by Big Brother Watch on a controversial policy introduced to authorise police access to digital devices in criminal cases.
The woman said she 'felt uneasy' giving consent to access her phone because she was worried police and prosecutors would search for data 'to find holes in my character'.
The woman said data consent must be given freely. She recalled feeling vulnerable and traumatised at the time, and described giving consent to the police like 'someone being pressured on their death bed to sign a new will... Victims should be afforded a trauma [and] legally trained advocate, who can provide support from the very moment they report a crime'.
Earlier this year the Crown Prosecution Service and National Police Chiefs Council announced they were introducing standardised consent forms for allowing access to phones and other devices because, they say, the approach to explaining why a complainant or witness's digital device has to be seized and its contents analysed has so far been inconsistent.
The Centre for Women's Justice and Big Brother Watch are challenging the forms, and sent a letter before action this month.
Big Brother Watch's report says the police's digital evidence technology 'should be brought up to date so police can collect targeted pieces of evidence from smartphones, rather than entire digital copies'.
A CPS spokesperson said: 'Mobile phones should not be taken as a matter of course and our guidance to police and prosecutors is very clear on this. Devices must only be taken in circumstances where they are a reasonable line of enquiry and the forms aim to give people a clear picture of what may be looked at and why.
'Balancing a respect for privacy with the need to make sure investigations are thorough and fair for all is an increasingly complex challenge. The forms mean investigators must specify what information they want to extract in line with the specific circumstances of the case in a bid to cut out unnecessary intrusion. We don’t want fears about how data is used to stop anybody affected by these horrific crimes from coming forward and reporting them.'
Concerned about the impact of 'further misleading and inaccurate reports' about how rape cases are investigated, the spokesperson said: 'It is simply not true that material which is not relevant to the case will be shared with the defence or shown in court. There are well established safeguards which govern the disclosure of such sensitive information.'