13:37, July 06 222 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-06 13:37:06
CPS cancels meeting on rape victims' phone data due to legal action

Police chiefs and prosecutors have been accused of treating a coalition of women’s groups with contempt after cancelling a meeting to discuss concerns over requests to hand over mobile phone records in rape investigations.

The highly anticipated consultation was cancelled three hours before it was due to start on Friday afternoon after senior police officers and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) learned they were facing legal action over new consent forms introduced by police forces, authorising detectives to search the texts, images and call data of rape complainants.

The Westminster event was promised following a national outcry and was meant to discuss urgent reform to the controversial policy announced in April.

However, after legal charity Centre for Women’s Justice launched a legal challenge last week calling the measures unlawful, the meeting was called off.

In a letter notifying legal action sent on Thursday evening to the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), the CPS and the College of Policing, lawyers demanded the policy be withdrawn because it was unlawful on grounds that such requests are disproportionate, discriminated against women and are incompatible with fundamental rights of privacy and protection of personal data.

An email sent on Friday morning from the CPS explained the meeting had been postponed because of the legal action, which meant it was not “appropriate to engage in a discussion today whilst we deal with our response”.

The new policy relies on forms that request formal consent for officers to comb through victims’ digital devices and warn that if they refuse, “it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue”.

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, one of the 13 groups invited to the meeting, said: “There is a massive failure within our justice system and yet it seems the very people who are supposed to protect it are not willing to listen.

“We’ve told them our concerns before and we were prepared to explain them again today, but the doors have been shut in our faces. The fact is that victims of crime are being forced to choose between their privacy and justice.”

The victims commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, said: “That the Centre for Women’s Justice has, in a bid to protect complainants, sent a legal letter is surely a huge additional reason why police and CPS should be re-engaging with the stakeholders to look for a reasonable and proportionate solution.

“The cancellation letter invites written representations in what must be an attempt at irony since all those who were on the way to the meeting wrote to both organisations before April and were ignored.”

Harriet Wistrich, from the Centre for Women’s Justice, said they had made it clear from the moment they learnt of the consent forms that they were preparing a legal challenge.

“We have been in correspondence with the NPCC since mid-May regarding the action and provided full details of our objections in the letter before claim prior to the consultation meeting.

“Having announced an urgent consultation following the national outcry, it is highly concerning that this should have been cancelled just hours before it was due to take place.”

Katie Russell, from Rape Crisis England & Wales, said the late cancellation was “extremely disappointing”.

An NPCC spokesman said: “Unfortunately this meeting has had to be postponed, as we received a letter on this issue shortly before the meeting was due to be held. We are unable to comment further for legal reasons. We have invited views and feedback on consent forms to be put to us in writing.”