Police to inspect mobile phones of victims of crime in England and Wales

Police in England and Wales can now ask for victims of crime to give them permission to inspect emails, messages, photographs and other information on their mobile phones.

The victims of the crime can refuse to handover their mobile phone for inspection, but they may risk the prosecution of the crime against them not going ahead. Among those who may be asked to sign the new consent forms are people who allege rape or serious sexual assault, and the move comes after a number of cases collapsed because of evidence that emerged from the mobile phone of the person making allegations.

The move has been widely criticised by victim support charities and organisations who say that it makes a return to a focus on the character and history of the victim as opposed to the behaviour and actions of the accused. The Centre for Women's Justice wanted of a "deterrent effect on the reporting of rape allegations" as many victims would feel it a grave violation of their privacy to have all the contents of their mobile phone inspected by the police. That concern was echoed by civil liberties charity Big Brother Watch, who said that victims should not have to "choose between their privacy and justice", and called the inspection of a victim's mobile phone a "digital strip search."

The Metropolitan Police has addressed those concerns by saying that they do not wish to add further harm to a victim of a serious sexual assault, but emphasised the importance of pursuing the offender with all the relevant information available, obtained with as much as consent as they can obtain with the minimum amount of disruption and embarrassment to the victim.

The move gained particular momentum as a result of a number of court cases being halted as a result of evidence that was not initially shared with defence solicitors. One of those cases involved a student, Liam Allan aged 22. He was accused of rape but the Metropolitan Police subsequently apologised to him for failings in the carriage of his case when messages were subsequently discovered on the alleged victim's mobile phone saying he was a kind person, that she loved him, and also referencing  rape fantasies. The case prompted a CPS review of every live rape and serious sexual assault prosecution in England and Wales.

The move will no doubt continue to spark heated debate as it deals with the very difficult matter of the conflicting rights of alleged victims and alleged offenders, and the upset and harm that can be caused to an innocent party in the efforts to establish the facts of the case. While the consent forms have not been implemented in Northern Ireland criminal solicitors here will be watching how the introduction in England and Wales develops with keen interest.

If you require legal advice from a criminal law solicitor in Northern Ireland contact Wilson Nesbitt in Belfast by clicking here.